It’s been more than two years since COVID-19 pressed pause on the life we once knew. Things have been challenging for many families: the responsibilities and workload of caregivers have increased significantly and overflowing household to-do lists keep expanding. While we adapt to a new normal, the light on Parental Burnout is starting to shine brighter, as many caregivers across the globe are showing warning signs of the epidemic few dare to talk about.
At the start of the pandemic in March 2020, around 1.4 billion children were out of school (UNICEF). Parents and carers were carrying the burden of homeschooling while juggling their growing to-do list. Research conducted at the start of 2021 by Action for Children, a U.K children’s charity, indicates that 80% of parents are struggling with at least one symptom of Burnout due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, a study done by the International Investigation of Parental Burnout consortium in 2020 (IIPB) found that up to 5 million U.S. parents experience Burnout each year. The stats clearly indicate that Parental Burnout is a lot more common than most families realise.
WHAT EXACTLY IS PARENTAL BURNOUT?
World-leading researchers and pioneers in this field define Parental Burnout as: “a state of intense, overwhelming exhaustion related to one’s parental role: parents feel tired when getting up in the morning and having to face another day with their children. They feel emotionally drained by the parental role to the extent that thinking about their role as parents makes them feel they have reached the end of their tether. Furthermore, caregivers experiencing Burnout feel fed up with parenting, and they can no longer stand their role as a mother/father anymore, which often leads to emotional detachment from their children. Burnout can also cause parents to be violent or neglectful towards their children.” (Roskam et al., 2017 and Mikolajczak et al., 2017)
That feeling is more than a passing mood for some parents; it can damage them and their families. Burned-out parents feel trapped in their roles, and unlike their paid jobs, there is no opportunity to take a break – not for a day and certainly not for a few weeks – from their roles within their families and households.
THE WARNING SIGNS OF PARENTAL BURNOUT
The first stage is overwhelming exhaustion. Parents with younger children tend to be more physically tired, while carers of adolescents experience emotional exhaustion mainly due to power struggles and conflicts.
Burned-out parents tend to distance themselves from their children in an attempt to restore themselves, resulting in them damaging the relationships around them and causing more parenting struggles. As a result, parents lose their sense of fulfilment and the joy they once felt from being around their children. They instead want to do anything but be with their children.
Parental Burnout symptoms build on each other; the prolonged exhaustion sticks around through the emotional distancing and loss of fulfilment, leading to parents feeling shame and guilt as they constantly compare the parents, they used to be to the ones they’ve become.
Burned-out parents may also experience the following symptoms: disordered sleep; inability to control emotions; difficulty thinking clearly; short tempers; forgetting or avoiding important appointments; chronic physical health problems; increased alcohol consumption; and in the worst cases, suicidal thoughts.
HOW SOCIAL UPHEAVAL CONTRIBUTES TO PARENTAL BURNOUT
The International Investigation of Parental Burnout consortium’s study in 2020 (IIPB) also shows that certain populations are more prone to Parental Burnout. The results indicate that parents from more individualistic (typically Western) countries are more likely to experience Burnout than Eastern countries (Parental Burnout Around the Globe: a 42-country study, Affective Science, Vol.2, 2021). In an individualistic culture, people are seen as independent, autonomous, and socially comparative. So, the parental burden is often worsened by the pressure to keep up with neighbours, friends, and even social media followers.
Change in family structure is also a significant contributor to Parental Burnout. In a nuclear family, parents feel less supported and lack resources. On the other hand, in an extended family household, the adults can share their worries, stresses and responsibilities with other family members like their parents, who genuinely care for their wellbeing.
Furthermore, the unrealistic expectations parents place on themselves increase their load, thus making them prone to Burnout. Some parents are setting the bar too high and feel compelled to take on board all the advice and tips on “how to be a great parent,” even though this advice doesn’t factor in individual families’ circumstances. It is an innate drive for parents to wonder if they’re doing things right by their children, but they need to remember that their family is unique.
WHAT CAN PARENTS DO TO MANAGE BURNOUT
Every Burnout situation is unique, and parents should therefore see recovery as a journey of experimentation to find what works best for them and their family.
Admitting you’re struggling as a parent isn’t always easy. Burned-out parents often feel isolated and ashamed, which prevents them from having a healthy dialogue with supportive people. Reach out to someone – it can be a friend, a family member or a professional.
Let’s be realistic: not everyone can take a kid-free getaway to recover. Tiny breaks like soaking for 10 minutes in a bathtub, locking yourself in your room for 5 minutes to take deep breaths, sitting silently in your car after grocery shopping and listening to a guided meditation before going back home or blasting the car stereo to your favourite songs on your way to pick up your children from school are all mini therapeutic breaks that you can allow yourself to enjoy. Focus on finding “me time” in realistic and manageable ways for you.
Work as a team
Have your family working as a team! Get the children involved in running the household. Find opportunities to regroup and slow down together, such as connecting with nature, or a family snuggle on the couch.
Be present and enjoy the moment
Children don’t need to be involved in an activity every day of the week. Instead, look at substituting it with family time in the park or at the beach. Happy families equate to thriving children!
Build your support village
It’s OK to ask for help! Whether it is practical support or advice, don’t hesitate to ask family, friends or neighbours for support. If possible, take turns to do school drop off or pick up, or organise babysitting so that you can go out with your partner or friends.
Work with a professional
Acknowledging that parenting is very difficult and you’re not coping doesn’t mean you don’t love your children. These feelings of resentment, shame, and guilt come up because we live in a society that says we should love our children unconditionally, and if we’re frustrated or want a break from them, we’re “bad” or “inefficient” parents. When you feel detached from something you care about, it is always helpful to reconnect with your values and yourself to help you realign with your purpose.
If you’re experiencing Burnout or heading towards it, have a chat with your GP, who can refer you to a professional that specialises in Burnout Management. Depending on where you fall on the spectrum of Burnout, you can either work with a clinical psychologist or a Certified Parental Burnout Practitioner.
Reach out to me here and we can have a FREE no-obligation chat. As a Burnout survivor who is thriving and living my best life, I know how it feels to be going through this rough season, so I understand what you’re going through.
You don’t have to do this alone – find support and in doing so, remind yourself that you will be a better parent because of it.
Keep shining your light!