Parental burnout is a condition parents experience when they have exhausted their energy in every facet of their lives. From personal experience, it's not a fun place to be, even less so during trying and challenging times. If you’ve fallen into this trap, don’t worry, there are ways you can break out of it and even prevent it in the first place.
I experienced parental burnout while working an intense dental hygiene schedule and raising 3 kids at the same time. I was exhausted all the time but was too afraid to stop working because I made a great income working 4 days a week.
I thought that it was normal to feel exhausted, drained, unfocused, and anxious all the time because I was a working mom. It was a feeling that followed me everywhere, even if I had a day off or was getting adequate sleep.
What added to the exhaustion were feelings of guilt & shame about my coping and parenting skills, undiagnosed postpartum depression, and generalized anxiety.
I felt resentful in my role as both a parent & breadwinner for fear of looking like a bad mom for wanting to quit work. Eventually, I learned that it was not normal to constantly feel burned out and that caring for myself was the best thing I could have done for myself and my family.
What is parental burnout?
According to a study, the definition of parental burnout is: “situations where exhaustion occurs as a result of being physically and emotionally overwhelmed by one’s parental role.”
When I was a new mother to my 2 older kids, I was working, but I wasn’t completely exhausted all the time and I had better boundaries back then.
Working and being a mom was hard, but I didn’t feel like I had a huge weight on my shoulders. When I would come home from work, I was tired, but still had the energy to make dinner and didn’t give a second thought to buying a fast food meal or take out when I didn’t feel like cooking.
Back then, I just started my career and was focused on being good at my job and being a good parent. When I said no to my kids or my loved ones, I meant it. Over the years however, the mom guilt, exhaustion, stress, and all the other symptoms leading to burnout took its toll and I was too busy to even recognize it.
One study on parental burnout revealed that stress from parenting can “escalate to the level of parental burnout.” When the amount of parental demands and responsibilities exceeds the available resources for help, parents can be at risk for parental burnout.
What are the symptoms of parental burnout?
Parental burnout is a culmination of parenting-related stress symptoms that build up over time. During times of uncertainty, parents are even more susceptible to parental burnout. It has been attributed to financial and job insecurity, lack of social support, lack of social outlet and activities, and being at home with the children 24/7.
People experiencing parental burnout have a higher risk of conflicts with their spouses, internal struggles, and child abuse & neglect. This was true across all socioeconomic lines.
Emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion.
As a parent to 3 beautiful children, I can tell you that this feeling is all too common. So many sleepless nights and so little time to yourself will make you physically exhausted. But a person with burnout is feeling mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausted, too.
Being on autopilot.
This is all too common with parents because when you’re exhausted, you also lack the energy to do the things you used to do before you had kids. You feel like you are just going through the motions and lack meaningful interactions with your kids and your loved ones.
Reduction in sleep quality.
Lack of sleep adds to physical and mental exhaustion. When your children are very small, they are waking up at all hours of the night. It’s very challenging to get the recommended 7-8 hours of sleep. You go from 8 consistent hours of sleep, to lucky if you can get 4 hours straight.
Lack of focus.
When your sleep is constantly deficient, your energy will also be lacking. This can decrease your focus and cognitive ability. Parents who suffered from parental burnout reported feeling like their brains were in a fog and they couldn’t focus.
Feeling incompetent as a parent.
People who suffered from parental burnout said that they questioned their abilities as a parent. They feel as if they are not good enough or not doing enough for their children, especially during challenging times.
There is a perception of needing to look perfect, which is heightened during trying times, and “resources to meet those demands fall short.” The “socially-prescribed perfectionism refers to parents’ perceptions of others’ expectations for them, particularly their perceptions that others judge their parenting negatively.”
During trying times, “parents are trying to balance the typical demands of parenting with the exceptional demands of a shelter in place order, coupled with high rates of financial and health related fear and uncertainty. It is possible that those who strive for higher levels of self-oriented and socially-prescribed perfectionism may be at a greater risk for the development of parental burnout. As mentioned above, theories of parental burnout suggest that burnout develops when the demands of parenting exceed the resources available to meet those demands. Even at the best of times, the demands of perfection are great, but in a time of pandemic the resources needed to meet those demands are likely to fall short.”
Source: Journal of Family Violence, "Parental Burnout and Child Maltreatment During the COVID-19 Pandemic", June 23, 2020. Annette Griffith, Applied Behavior Analysis Online Department, The Chicago School of Professional Psychology, Chicago, IL USA
Distancing emotionally from children.
Parents suffering from burnout become so exhausted that they don’t have the energy to care for their children in the way they deem is acceptable and emotionally detach themselves from them.
Some parents reported feeling “trapped in an uncomfortable situation with no way out” in addition to classic symptoms of parental burnout.
How to recover from and prevent parental burnout.
Get some rest.
If your kids are older, try to keep a consistent sleep schedule during the days you work, typically on the weekdays. The “Clock” app on the iPhone has a “Bedtime” feature in the “Alarm” section that you can customize to help you get consistent sleep every night. I found this tool super helpful when I needed to start a consistent sleep schedule so I could get 7 hours of sleep each night.
Pick a time that you want to fall asleep. Then, start winding down for that bedtime at least 15 minutes in advance. Be sure not to watch the news or exercise during this winding-down period. Lastly, set your alarm for the time you want to get up so you get at least 7-8 hours of sleep.
It is usually hard for someone with parental burnout to ask for help. Women and men enter parenthood with skills they learned from their own parents and societal norms. Those ideals are what they perceive as the right way to parent their kids, which is why it is hard to ask for them to get help from others, even loved ones.
However, to prevent parental burnout, it is imperative to seek help. If you feel constant stress and exhaustion, it could even mean protecting your child’s well-being as well as your own when you ask for help.
You’re less likely to take out your frustrations and anger on your child when you get the help & support you need. This can help resolve any issues that are just beginning to percolate instead of having them boil over.
Be kind to yourself.
Many of the parents who suffered from burnout not only questioned their parenting skills, they harbored feelings of guilt, fear, and shame. Parents want to ensure that their kids are feeling safe, especially during challenging times. This adds even more pressure and stress for them to perform their parental roles perfectly while maintaining their own composure.
Experts recommend to “set the bar” low if you are questioning your parenting skills. I know it’s easier said than done, but don’t be too critical of yourself because you’re doing the best that you can with the skills and knowledge you possess. Children are much more resilient than we give them credit for.
Perfectionism is unattainable, yet we all want to appear this way. Just check out your social media accounts and you’ll see them full of beautiful, perfect photos.
This is not a reflection of reality, yet I strive to look and feel this way all the time. I also want my physical appearance, career, kids, husband, home, activities and everything else, to look picture-perfect. It is a way to validate myself and showcase my “success”. It is also very exhausting.
We can prevent parental burnout by embracing imperfection and dropping the belief that we have to be perfect at parenting. We learned to parent from the people who raised us and even what we learned from society. It’s easier said than done, but over time, we can accept that we can’t be perfect at everything, including parenting.
Stop second-guessing your skills as a parent.
In her book, “Why we can’t sleep”, author Ada Calhoun reveals why we put so much pressure on ourselves to perform as parents. The generation of girls and women that followed Baby Boomers grew up with the notion that success meant having it all and doing it better than our parents. If we’re not perfectly happy with our career, spouse, home, and kids, then we feel like failures.
We all want to be the best for our kids and give them only the best, but sometimes it’s okay to admit that we don’t have all the answers. Second guessing only adds more stress. Your kids will either pick up on your stress or be on the receiving end of it if you are experiencing burnout. So be kinder to yourself. Kids learn from their parents, so we want to teach them that it’s okay not to know all the right answers.
Have healthy boundaries.
I was a mom that had good boundaries, and then I didn’t, and now I’m learning how to put them back up again.
When I had my first 2 kids, I was very career-focused and had no problem putting them in daycare while I worked. By the time I had my third, I was pushing 40 & needed a career change, but was too scared to leave the cushy life I built for myself. So I put everyone else first and myself at the bottom.
Saying no to someone else and saying yes to yourself is one way to prevent parental burnout. When we say no to our kids, we’re not rejecting them. We need that space to recoup our energy so we have more to give back.
When you have more boundaries for yourself, you set an example for your children that says you’re an individual with limitations and that’s fine. You don’t have to be a super parent to show your kids you love them. It’s better to have more meaningful interactions that are spaced out than ones that are laced with resentment and exhaustion.
Mom guilt, or any type of parent guilt, is one thing that many parents experience. This is one big roadblock that prevents parents from taking time to care for themselves.
Mom guilt is something that I still struggle with because when I want to take time for myself, I feel like I’m being a bad parent. I picked this up from my own parents who sacrificed a lot for me to have the American dream. So in my mind, family came first and me second.
When I do take time to care for myself, I always feel more rested and fulfilled. I have more energy to give to my kids and they probably pick up on this. Remember this the next time you want to take time to care for yourself and you’re feeling guilty about it.
Self-care is not an indulgence. When you take good care of yourself, you’re also taking good care of everyone else.
There is no doubt that raising kids is one of the hardest jobs in the world. During times of adversity and stress, it becomes even more challenging. It is important to be aware of the signs of parental burnout so that you can prevent it in the first place.
Constant exhaustion and stress can lead to it. If you are feeling this way, you can prevent burnout by taking care of yourself, asking for help & support when you need it, having healthy boundaries, and striving for acceptance rather than perfection.
More ways to prevent parental burnout.
If you want some tips on how to care for your emotions, read "Self-care guide for your emotional health."
If you want to take care of yourself but you're so busy, read, "Self-care tips for busy people from 10 experts and bloggers."
Finally, if you want to learn how to feel more calm and peaceful, read "How to find your inner peace and calm when you feel overwhelmed."
I hope you found these tips helpful. Please let me know if you have any tips to prevent parental burnout in the comments!