Identifying Signs and Symptoms of Parental Burnout

Let’s face it: Parenting is hard. Even in the best of circumstances—when co-parents work well together, support is available, and the children are happy and healthy—raising a human being is a daunting task. So it’s no surprise that researchers have identified a syndrome known as parental burnout.

Like job burnout, parental burnout comes with a set of specific symptoms. But what makes the problem worse is that parents are often ashamed and guilty about being burnt out. There’s a stigma associated with parental burnout. As a result, parents hide what they’re going through, and don’t reach out for practical and emotional support.

What Is Parental Burnout?

Parents have been experiencing stress and burnout for decades, maybe even centuries. But Belgian psychology researchers Isabelle Roskam and Moïra Mikolajczak were the first to put a name to parental burnout, in the early 1980s. Described as “an exhaustion syndrome,” parental burnout has three distinct aspects:

  1. An overwhelming exhaustion related to parenting and your role as a parent
  2. Feeling emotionally distanced from your children
  3. A sense of ineffectiveness as a parent; feeling unsure of your ability to parent well

While parenting can be wonderful and rewarding, it can also be a source of tension and worry. Hence, it can cause many of the same symptoms as other types of chronic stress.

Parental Burnout and Mental Health

The stressors associated with the pandemic have negatively impacted levels of parental burnout. Hand in hand with the events of the past two-plus years, the youth mental health crisis has also exacerbated parental burnout. According to a study released in May 2022 by Ohio State University researchers, two-thirds of working parents reported being burned out.

The study was based on a survey of nearly 1,300 parents with children under 18 living with them. And the researchers found that burnout is linked to mental health issues in both parents and children. Firstly, the study found that burnout was directly associated with anxiety and depression in parents, as well as increased alcohol consumption. Three-quarters of parents who had a history of personal anxiety reported experiencing burnout.

Moreover, parents whose children had been diagnosed with ADHD or anxiety were more likely to experience burnout. In addition, parents who were concerned that their child had an undiagnosed mental health condition were also at higher risk of burnout.

“Mom burnout” is more common as women continue to be the primary care providers for children. However, fathers are also at risk for burnout when they are involved with parenting. The Ohio State University study found that 68 percent of female parents were burnt out vs. 42 percent of males.

“All parents do the very best that they can, but when current stressors outweigh their coping skills and resources available to deal with them, it is understandable to experience burnout and the emotional toll that it takes on mental health and well-being.”
—Kate Gawlik, Associate Professor of Clinical Nursing, and Bernadette Mazurek Melnyk, Vice President for Health Promotion
The Ohio State University

What Are the Symptoms of Parental Burnout?

It’s natural for parents to feel tired, frazzled, and frustrated sometimes. However, when parents don’t have time to rest and reenergize, typical low energy and irritation can progress into burnout.

Signs of burnout in parents include the following:

  1. Suicidal thoughts and escape ideation, feeling trapped
  2. Increase in addictive behaviors like drinking or smoking
  3. Intense physical and mental exhaustion, feeling drained and tired all the time
  4. Higher risk of anxiety and depression
  5. Emotional detachment, feeling alone in the world
  6. Irritability and frustration
  7. Sleep disorders and other health issues, such as headaches and muscle aches
  8. Increased frequency and intensity of conflict between parents
  9. Feelings of inadequacy; loss of a sense of accomplishment related to parenting
  10. Loss of motivation and interest in activities you used to enjoy

    Parental burnout is a state of physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion. It leaves parents feeling chronically fatigued, often experiencing sleep and concentration problems, and it can lead to depression, chronic anxiety, and illness.”
    —Neil D. Brown LCSW, author of Ending the Parent-Teen Control Battle

The Underlying Cause of Parental Burnout

The concept of parental burnout was introduced into scientific research more than 30 years ago. However, new studies are expanding our understanding of this phenomenon. According to recent research, the root cause of parental burnout is an imbalance between the demands of parenting and the rewards.

All parenting involves stress and challenges. However, the positive aspects of parenting ideally outweigh the negative ones. But when the scale tips the other way and parents experience more stress than rewards over time, they are at risk for burnout. “As soon as the balance leans on the negative side (i.e., risks outweigh resources), the parent starts experiencing most burnout symptoms every day,” wrote the authors of a 2018 study.

Risk vs. Resources in Parenting

Parenting both gives energy and consumes energy. To avoid parental burnout, the key is to balance the energy-consuming aspects of caregiving with attitudes and experiences that boost energy.

Stress-increasing factors include:

  • Having a child with physical or mental health challenges
  • Perfectionism: feeling you need to be the “perfect” parent at all times
  • Lack of support from co-parent
  • Both parents working outside the home
  • Financial concerns
  • Not enough support from outside the family (childcare, extended family, etc.)
  • Finding it hard to ask for help
  • Overscheduled kids
  • Parental history of attachment disorders.

Factors that decrease stress include:

  • Parental self-compassion
  • High emotional intelligence
  • Prioritizing downtime for parents
  • Positive co-parenting experiences
  • External support from family, friends, etc.

Parenting That Never Stops = Burnout

During COVID shutdowns, parenting were literally caring for kids 24/7—often while working full-time jobs. But even now, with kids back at school, parents often feel that they’re constantly on call. In the age of technology, teens and young adults can stay in continuous contact with their parents. Even when their child is at school or in college, parents may be called upon at any time of the day to help avert a crisis or support a kid who’s having a hard day. Sometimes that’s a good thing. But it can also contribute to parental burnout.

In addition, parents are spending more time with their kids. American mothers now spend twice as much time with their children compared with women 50 years ago: an average of 125 minutes per day. And since 1965, fathers have tripled the time spent with their kids, to an average of about an hour daily. That’s a good thing, but it can be draining for parents.

Moreover, pressuring yourself to be the best possible parent can actually make things worse. Overinvesting in the parental role—feeling a desire to be perfect and an overwhelming sense of responsibility for your child’s future—increases the risk of burnout.

How Parental Burnout Impacts Kids

It’s bad enough for parents to be struggling with burnout. But unfortunately, parental burnout also impacts the children living at home. Of course, parents are only human, too. They can’t be expected to make the right decisions every time. And they shouldn’t beat themselves up about being tired or emotionally unavailable for their kids sometimes. However, if parental burnout is allowed to continue, the repercussions for parents and children can be severe.

When parents feel at the end of their rope, they don’t have the compassion and perspective to make wise and caring parenting decisions. Because burnt-out parents have less patience and lower impulse control, they may listen less and get angry more quickly. The Ohio State University study found that parents who reported burnout were more likely to insult, criticize, and yell at their kids. And they were also more likely to report that their kids were unhappy, worried a lot, and were hard on themselves.

Research also shows that parental burnout is associated with a higher risk of neglectful and violent behaviors toward one’s children. Even when burnt-out parents are not violent or punitive, their emotional detachment can leave children feeling unloved and unseen.

Testing Your Level of Parental Burnout

Created by the Ohio State University researchers, the Working Parent Burnout Scale can be used to help both parents and clinicians determine whether a parent is experiencing burnout.

Step one: Complete the scale

The first step in using this tool is to rate the following statements as either Not at all, A Little, Somewhat, Moderately So, or Very much so.

  1. I get/feel easily irritated with my children.
  2. I feel that I am not the good parent that I used to be to my child(ren).
  3. I wake up exhausted at the thought of another day with my children.
  4. I find joy in parenting my children.
  5. I have guilt about being a working parent, which affects how I parent my children.
  6. I feel like I am in survival mode as a parent.
  7. Parenting my children is stressful.
  8. I lose my temper easily with my children.
  9. I feel overwhelmed trying to balance my job and parenting responsibilities.
  10. I am doing a good job being a parent.

Next, score each item on the scale.

For all questions except questions 4 and 10, use these point values:

  • Not at all = 0 points
  • A little = 1 point
  • Somewhat = 2 points
  • Moderately so = 3 points
  • Very much so = 4 points

Questions 4 and 10 use reverse scoring. Use these point values for questions 4 and 10.

  • Not at all = 4 points
  • A little = 3 points
  • Somewhat = 2 points
  • Moderately so = 1 point
  • Very much so = 0 points

Add all points together for a final score.

Next, interpret the score:

  • 0-10 Points: No or few signs of burnout. Continue what you’re doing and make sure to prioritize self-care.
  • 11-20 Points: Mild burnout: Take preventative actions, such as decreasing stressors and identifying resources to help (see the strategies below).
  • 21-30 Points: Moderate burnout: It’s very important to start doing interventions to improve mental health and well-being, decrease stressors, and use available resources.
  • 31+ Points: Severe burnout: Seek help immediately from your healthcare provider or a mental health professional.

Five Strategies for Counteracting Parental Burnout

Ask for help. It might be as simple as setting up ride-sharing for a child’s after-school activities. Or it could be something bigger, such as exploring residential treatment for a teen struggling with depression, anxiety, or another mental health challenge.

Know you’re not alone. As research shows, parental burnout is common. Release shame and guilt—it’s not helping. Letting go of self-blaming will free up emotional energy that can be used to shift what’s not working.
Practice self-compassion. Self-compassion involves a consistent attitude of acceptance and kindness toward ourselves. Taking this approach can help parents avoid the trap of perfectionism.

Join a support group. In support groups, parents can talk to others who understand the challenges, emotions, and practicalities that they’re dealing with every day.

Establish structure. Parents can reduce burnout by establishing clear boundaries and house rules. This structure works best when it’s created collaboratively with teens, and based on open communication, trust, and unconditional love.

When to Seek Treatment for the Whole Family

When parental burnout has gotten to the point that it’s detrimental for both parents and kids, it’s important to stop the negative cycle and get more support for the entire family. A mental health professional can assess what parents and kids are going through and recommend the best course of action. If a family member—either parent or child—is experiencing anxiety, depression, trauma, or chronic stress, finding the right type of treatment is the next step.

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