Parental Burnout: What to Know About the Stress, Symptoms, and How to Fight It
The day-to-day stress of work, marriage, and raising kids can build to such a degree that you feel depleted, inadequate, and emotionally detached. Here's how to recognize the signs — and measures you can take to avoid it.
As a parent, you accept that you’ll have good days and bad with your kids. But there are times when the bad ones pile up and the good ones seem to be only distant memories. Instead of joy and fulfillment, all you feel from parenthood is irritation and stress and aching monotony. Knowing that you’re supposed to feel joy only makes the hopelessness worse.
Sound familiar? There’s a good chance you’re suffering from parental burnout. Unfortunately, identifying it doesn’t naturally inspire reassurance. The other, more common, burnout is professional burnout and while it isn’t easy to overcome, you can take actionable steps to change it once you’ve identified it. You can take time off or find a new job. But when you’re burned out as a parent, it can feel as though the feeling might never end. Of course, there is a lot that can be done.
So, what is parental burnout, how does it manifest itself, and what can be done to prevent it? Here’s what to know.
What Is Parental Burnout and What Are the Symptoms?
Parental burnout is a bone-deep feeling of depletion, inadequacy, and emotional detachment. It happens when the day-to-day stresses of work, marriage, and raising kids builds to such a degree that parents start to feel their performance suffer in all three areas.
Dr. Chloe Carmichael, a New York City clinical psychologist, explains that burnt-out parents no longer enjoy spending time with their kids. She adds that many parents, particularly dads, often feel irritable and snappish with their children for reasons they don’t understand. Even simple activities, such as going for a walk, leave them feeling depleted. But while they’re emotionally and physically drained, their brains are often in overdrive, frantically second-guessing their parenting.
“You always have a running monologue in your head saying ‘Maybe I should be doing this differently or I should be doing that differently,” Carmichael says. “That makes it hard for you to just connect with your kid in a natural, relatable way because it seems like everything about your interaction with them that you’re viewing through a lens of ‘Am I doing this right?’ ”
It’s no secret that raising kids in America is, in many ways, more difficult than it’s ever been. Parental burnout correlates directly to this and is quite common among modern moms and dads. In fact, according to a survey conducted last year by BPI Network that included interviews with 2,000 participants, most parents, unsurprisingly, admit to suffering from some degree of burnout. Fourteen percent of those surveyed said they experience it frequently, while 34 percent admitted to experiencing it sometimes. Only 21 percent noted that they had no such feelings.
Why Does Parental Burnout Happen?
When asked if the idea of parental burnout sounded familiar, Washington, D.C., parent coach and author Meghan Leahy says, “Yeah, I think it’s called ‘parenting.’ ”
As rewarding as raising kids can be, parenting is an exhausting grind. Yes, moments of otherwise inaccessible beauty and joy surface. But the daily struggle of corralling kids will wear down almost every single parent at some time or another.
“Parenting is hard. Even with a great spouse, with neurotypical kids and a safe job, parenting is hard,” Leahy says. “And depending on the developmental stages of your kids and where you are in your life, burnout is also slightly inevitable.”
Alli Kert, a New York City–based psychologist who specializes in treating parents and children, says the foundational difficulty of parenting too often goes unacknowledged.
“Everyone has their own unique experience with it, but I don’t care who your kids are or who you are: It’s hard,” Kert says. “And I think acknowledging that is helpful.”
Kert adds that a lack of patience with children in daily routines and activities is a key symptom of parental burnout: “It’s a feeling that we’re defeated and emotionally disconnected from kids, and I think it’s easy to feel embarrassed when that starts happening and just overall bad about ourselves.”
The Modern Parental Burnout Cycle
Another reason parental burnout is such an issue for parents today is the sheer amount of information available. Carmichael and Leahy note that while there are a lot of great resources out there, the amount of information — coupled with the trap of intensive parenting — can also foster a profound sense of insecurity.
According to the longstanding psychological concept of social comparison theory, humans are compelled to compare themselves to people they perceive as peers. Our perceived peers were once our professional colleagues and neighbors. Modern parents working in today’s unstable gig-economy-driven job market judge themselves against the images of perfect parenting they scroll through on Instagram and Pinterest. Keeping up with the Joneses can lead to an all-consuming anxiety.
“Parents want to do everything for their kids now, whether it’s clothing or camps or iPads,” Carmichael says. “These materials cost a lot of money and parents feel, in some way, that they’re important for the child’s growth or social development. Like all the other kids tend to have these expensive birthday parties with face-painting clowns and musicians or whatever it is. At the same time, parents also want to be contributing to a 529 college fund and save for their own retirement so their kids don’t have to take care of them.”
Over time, that anxiety, hopelessness, and exhaustion becomes so familiar that you accept it as a central part of your life. As it seeps into the fabric of your day-to-day existence, Leahy says it becomes more powerful but harder to acknowledge.
“I would argue that for nine out of 10 parents, it is super basic,” Leahy says. “They just don’t want to admit that they’re working too much. Yeah. I don’t have any fun. I’m not having sex. Yeah. I expect too much from my child. I don’t know what to do. Like they just, they can’t even say things aloud. And so the burnout circles in on itself.”
How to Prevent Parental Burnout
In the first study conducted on parental burnout in 2017, researchers noted that while it arose because of specific circumstances and situations with which parents are confronted, it had a great deal to do with the personality of the parents themselves. This is actually good news because this means that, with a bit of planning and self-awareness, parents can build a routine that prevents burnout from flaring up in the first place. Here are some ways to do just that.
- Recognize That You Are Burnt Out
It might sound obvious, but one of the first — and often the most difficult — steps is admitting that you’re suffering parental burnout. “Otherwise, it stays kind of abstract and just unrecognized,” Leahy says. “You feel like, okay, this is life.”
- Prioritize Your Body’s Basic Requirements
In working with parents, Leahy’s seen burnout most often manifest at a fundamental level of self-neglect. Overwhelmed by their responsibilities at home and work, moms and dads ignore their own basic needs.“They’re not eating or they forget to drink enough water,” Leahy says. Ignoring your body’s most critical needs worsens the situation, as parents are coping with stress and negative feelings while they’re exhausted, dehydrated, and hungry. Simply paying attention to your body’s basic requirements can keep a bad patch from growing into a crisis.
- Search for Points of Stress
Once you have your essential needs in check, it’s time to reflect on routines and search for points of stress. Kert recommends that parents identify the daily parenting moments they struggle with to find small changes that can make their parenting experience better.“Say the morning routine is becoming brutal and stressful,” Kert says. “When you’re tending to one kid, it’s hard to give the other one the attention they need and get everyone ready. If you live in an apartment building, finding a high school kid or college kid who’s available for an hour can go a really long way.”The same approach applies to a bedtime that leaves you too frazzled to sleep.“If you have three kids and you’re doing three individual bedtime routines and that becomes a real time constraint,” she says. “Well, can combine them for one and call it family story time.”Kert says that small tweaks to daily routines add up. “The goal is to just make each day run a little more smoothly and position us to be more available to our kids and positioned for greater success when bumps in the road present themselves,” she says.
- Stop Being Such a Martyr
Finding breathing room in your daily routine can make your life easier. But many parents, per Carmichael, equate exhaustion with virtue, fueling burnout.“Sometimes people can start thinking that being exhausted or being burnt out as like a badge of being a hardworking person,” Carmichael says. “The good news is that’s not true. And that’s good news because it means that we actually do not have to choose between being fulfilled and being productive.”
- Break the Cycle of Self Criticism
When parents constantly strive for productivity and perfectionism, it changes their inner monologue into a constant stream of self-criticism, which Carmichael identified as a key indicator of imminent burnout. Unfortunately, Carmichael says, realizing you’re being too self critical doesn’t automatically halt the fault-finding. In fact, realizing you’re being too hard on yourself can just become another thing to beat yourself up over, i.e. Why are you being so negative about yourself, you moron?“You can break that cycle by actually congratulating yourself on your awareness,” Carmichael says. “It’s actually great news that you spotted it.”If the drive to be a perfect parent at all times is making you frayed around the edges, Carmichael has some great news about that too: Being a perfect parent isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.“If you are a perfect parent that would damage your kids, too,” Carmichael says. “It’s actually helpful for kids to learn that nobody’s perfect and to learn how to encounter and navigate the flaws and vulnerability of other people. And that absolutely includes you.”
- Unplug — And Get Together With Friends
As parental burnout often involves feelings of hopelessness and isolation, connecting with people can get you off the productivity and perfectionism treadmill. “It’s not necessarily just connecting with your kids, although that’s wonderful, but connecting with other people too,” she says.Simply knowing you’re not alone in what you’re feeling can help. “I think there’s so much comfort in shared experience,” Kert says.Carmichael suggested that parents having trouble connecting with their kids try sharing time in nature, away from screens and devices. But, she warned that when overextended people are surrounded by trees and other natural scenery, there may be some initial disorientation.“When people are unplugged, the first few hours feel kind of frantic and kind of scary,” Carmichael says. “But then after those few hours, people’s brain waves actually start to change, and it can be a really restorative thing to do together.”
If you’ve taken these steps but still think you’re facing burnout, it may be time to consider bigger changes. Carmichael notes that parents who are short on time all the time may need to scale back their ambitions for their parenting and their family.
“Take a step back and ask if that’s really working for your family and think about making some changes where you might work a little less and the family might lead a simpler lifestyle,” she says.
And, if you still find yourself struggling, please seek help. There’s nothing wrong with speaking to a professional about what you’re going through.
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