Parenting Conversation: Parental Burnout

Parenting Conversation: Parental Burnout

30th May 2022

Are you feeling exhausted and overwhelmed as a parent?

If so, then you might be experiencing a “Parental Burnout”

….and it’s ok…it’s only temporary!

Burnout is a chronic exhaustion syndrome that has been around for a long time. It gained traction in the last century with the influx of exhausted women joining the workforce, but was only formally recognized as a medical condition in the 1970’s. It is commonly associated with stressful working environments such as finance and law, but more recently has been recognized as a syndrome that is experienced in other areas of life, such as parenting.

Parental burnout, according to Dr. Puja Aggarwal, a board-certified neurologist and life coach, is “the physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion that one feels from the chronic stress of parenting.” An alarming number of parents are experiencing the overwhelming emotional despair of parental burnout. In the USA alone, it is estimated by the IIPB Consortium that over 5 million parents are currently suffering from this. And whilst this condition has been around for a longtime, it is only now that we are breaking through the taboo of not enjoying being a parent.

Isn’t parenting supposed to be fun and special?! It is supposed to be full of rewarding moments that come with raising a tiny human. What a gift to have a child! Oh the joy! BUT… (the “but” we didn’t realize until too late…) when dreaming of your future family, no one tells you about the lack of sleep, endless demands, never-ending hours, emotional and financial pressure, and the end of ‘me’ time. Unlike a paid job, there is no holiday leave, no pay, no promotion and no job swapping options… it is truly a ‘labor of love.’ But for some parents it is too much.

Similar to a job burnout, the parental burnout is also accumulative in its symptoms. In the whirlwind of the newborn and toddler years, the lack of sleep and physical exhaustion can take its toll. And as children and their demands change, the parent’s exhaustion can often shift from physical tiredness to emotional exhaustion and overwhelm. They may feel irritable, frustrated, lacking in fulfilment and identity. Some experience sleep disruption, chronic fatigue, anxiety and forgetfulness. Where others feel inescapable distress, shame and guilt. Many parents at this stage start to feel ‘depersonalized,’ depressed and become detached from their children and community, wanting to give up on parenting altogether.

A recent study conducted by Clinical Psychological Science, showed that parental burnout is more concerning than previously thought. They saw that some parents experiencing burnout feel ‘trapped’ and fantasize about leaving parenting through suicide or abandoning their children. In the survey, it was reported that many adults admitted to acting with neglectful behavior or ‘violent’ aggression, be it verbal (threats or insults) or physical (spanking or slapping) towards children. For parents experiencing multiple stressors such as single parenting, financial strain, ‘outsiders’ as immigrant parents, or as parents of special needs children and of multiple offspring, the numbers of parental burnout were significantly higher.

Performing as a parent requires superhuman qualifications for many people, especially those that struggle with coping skills and low frustration tolerance. Unlike post-natal depression that comes from the social and relationship factors of being a parent of a newborn, parental burnout is usually linked to parental traits instead. If a parent struggles with poor boundaries, people pleasing, lack of communication or unrealistic expectations, they are likely to overextend themselves and lose themselves. Equally if they experience frequent scheduling conflicts, role assumption, limited access or knowledge of resources, and lack of support they are not going to have an easy ride.

Interestingly, research from Affective Science, Vol. 2, 2021, shows that parental burnout is more common in Western ‘individualistic’ populations where competition, performance and perfectionism are highly valued. Western cultures commonly assert values of self-improvement and independence, which means children are less likely to follow instructions, making parenting even more challenging. By contrast, in Eastern cultures, children are taught to be more obedient and respect their elders, and the sense of community and ritual can be stronger, providing a greater support to childrearing.

So, what should you do if you think you or a friend might be experiencing parental burnout?

First lookout for the most common signs:

  • Exhaustion or feeling tired or drained all the time.
  • Feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, or self-doubt.
  • Headaches, neck pain, and muscle aches.
  • Lack of motivation.
  • Changes in appetite or sleeping habits.
  • Detachment or feeling alone in the world.
  • Irritability.
  • Isolating behaviors.
  • Those who are burnt out may also misuse or abuse drugs or alcohol. This is often done in an effort to calm down, numb out, or cope.

And remember…Parental Burnout is temporary! There is a lot you can do to get back to yourself.

Some tips we recommend:

  • Talk about it: A problem shared is a problem halved. By sharing how you are feeling with your partner or friend, you can explain how you are feeling, how you are struggling, feeling overwhelmed and need things to change so you can come up for air and breathe.
  • Sleep: Never underestimate the power of sleep, especially when your sleep is interrupted by a sleepless child. We need sleep to reset and to restore. Sleep deprivation can be avoided by prioritizing a sleep schedule and restorative power naps.
  • Exercise: Even if you are feeling exhausted, exercise can magically boost your energy levels and help to reduce stress. The release of endorphins does wonders to your immune system and mood in general.
  • Be kind to yourself: Remember you are only human and are limited as such! You cannot do it all, no one can, even if you think everyone else is winning and you are not. Be kind, be your own best friend and give yourself a break. You are doing a great job!
  • Help: Don’t be afraid to outsource part of the childcare and ask for help. It will make you a better parent if you have had time to yourself and return energized to be with your children.
  • Mini breaks: If you are really struggling to find a moment for yourself, take 5 minutes in the bathroom for some deep breaths, or even a short meditation whilst you sit in the car before school pick up, or grocery shopping.
  • Self-Care: Carve out time to look after yourself. To have a bath, have your hair done, a massage, or whatever you enjoy for some pampering.
  • Therapy: If the above does not work, and you are feeling extremely overwhelmed over a period of time then see about contacting a psychologist or therapist for support.

According to Nathalie Dattilo, PhD, one of the first things we can do is take off the pressure by removing the word ‘should’. Imagine swapping out ‘should’ for ‘wouldn’t it be great if I could…’? Instead of setting unrealistic expectations that make us feel anxious and incapable, how about acknowledging all you are doing already and congratulating yourself!

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