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Coping with parental burnout and stress

Mother putting baby to sleep
Credit: iStock.com/mapodile

Parenting can be romanticized as overwhelmingly joyful and expectations set that we should cherish every single moment of our child’s early years.

Families know however that life is more complex than that rosy view and what if the non-joyful moments – the hourly night wakes, the temper tantrums, hearing “mummy” 20 times before sunrise – pile up and become too much? Experts call this parental burnout.

Parents experiencing burnout can be reassured however, that with support things can get better.

Professor Moïra Mikolajczak from the University of Louvain in Belgium has researched the impact of parental burnout.

She describes parental burnout as, “an exhaustion syndrome that occurs when a parent has been exposed to too much stress in their parenting role for too long, in the absence of sufficient resources to compensate for the effect of stress”.

While there is not enough research to understand how wide-spread parental burnout is, it can affect either parent.

“Contrary to what one might think, parental burnout is not only for mothers,” says Dr Mikolajczak.

“Among parents with parental burnout, epidemiological studies indicate that two thirds of them are women and one third are men.”

Founder of The Burnout Project and author of Burnout Your First Ten Steps, Dr Amy Imms, adds that, “single parents, parenting of children with special needs, parents with past or current mental illness, parents with perfectionist tendencies and those who are socially isolated with little practical or emotional support are at particular risk”.

“People with burnout often struggle to see any viable solution to their problems and they can end up desperately wanting to escape their circumstances,” says Dr Imms.

“This is one of the issues specific to parenting burnout, it's not so easy to quit your ‘job’.

“Parents experiencing burnout need to know that with good support things can get better.”

When you have an empty time-slot, remember that the 'to do list' will never end, so you'll need to deliberately choose to do those things that nurture you rather than all the other things that 'must' be done.
Dr Amy Imms

The warning signs

There are challenges in identifying burnout.

Dr Imms explains that, “warning signs of burnout often creep up slowly, and can be tricky to identify as they overlap with symptoms of many other physical and mental illnesses”.

Dr Mikolajczak adds that the definition of stress also complicates the matter, as it’s not one-size-fits-all.

“What ‘stresses’ the parent in their parenting role can be very different from one parent to another,” she says.

“Some parents will be overly stressed because they have difficult children or children with learning difficulties and little help from their spouse or family.

“Others have very easy children but are overly stressed because they set the bar too high.”

Dr Mikolajczak explains that there are four typical symptoms of parental burnout and they occur in the following order.

The first is exhaustion.

“This exhaustion can manifest itself at the emotional (feeling of no longer being able), cognitive (feeling of no longer being able to think properly) and/or physical (fatigue) level,” she says.

The second is loss of pleasure in parenting.

The third is emotional distancing from the children.

“Too tired, the parent no longer has the energy to get involved in the relationship, or at least not as much as usual. They do what they have to do, but no more,” she says.

Finally, the parent realises that they are no longer the parent they once were, let alone who they wanted to be as a parent.

“All these symptoms contrast sharply with the way the parent was before and generates feelings of strangeness, guilt and shame,” she says.

The consequences of parental burnout

“Research shows that parental burnout has important consequences, both for the parent, the children and the spouse,” says Dr Mikolajczak.

“For themselves, studies have shown that parental burnout has the same consequences as professional burnout: sleep disorders, health problems, increased alcohol consumption, suicidal thoughts.”

However, Dr Mikolajczak notes for parental burnout, suicidal thoughts are more common than in professional burnout due to parents being unable to resign from their role.

“For the children, there is a drastic increase in neglect and parental violence,” she continues.

Dr Mikolajczak says that the child’s emotional needs are first neglected, followed by verbal violence. If the parental burnout is severe there may be physical violence, which is often when the parent seeks help.

As for the spouse, the exhausted parent will unload their irritability onto them creating an increase in marital conflicts.

“When the parent is totally exhausted, another consequence for the spouse is that they are left with the entire parental role to assume,” she explains.

“If the burnout is not quickly and carefully managed, it is not uncommon for the parental burnout of one of the parents to be followed by the spouse's burnout.”

Dr Imms adds that another issue with parental burnout is that parents cannot effectively parent and be a positive role model to their children.

“If we're exhausted or not sleeping well, we have less energy to attend to our child's needs and be patient with them,” she says.

“If we're socially withdrawn, irritable, and struggling to show empathy, we don't communicate well and miss opportunities to strengthen the parent-child bond.

“If we're struggling to have hope, feel gratitude, and notice the positive things that happen, then it's difficult to teach our children to do those things.

“Caring for ourselves as parents isn't selfish, or detracting from our children, but rather it's vital in modelling healthy adult life.”

The importance of self-care and getting help

“Finding a way to take care of yourself as a parent can be a challenge, but it is possible,” says Dr Imms.

Dr Imms explains three to five small, personalised changes is all it takes.

“Every situation is unique, and I encourage people to view it as a journey of experimentation to find what works best for you,” she says.

“It may be accepting offers of help or asking for help, letting go of expectations imposed by others, taking a break from extra responsibilities, regular mindfulness meditation, or scheduling dedicated time to do things you find enjoyable.

“When you have an empty time-slot, remember that the 'to do list' will never end, so you'll need to deliberately choose to do those things that nurture you rather than all the other things that 'must' be done.

“If you do manage to find time for yourself, try not to feel guilty.

“Remind yourself that you will be a better parent because of it, and that you can provide an example to your child of the importance of self-care.”

If you are feeling burnt out, Dr Imms recommends speaking to your GP who may refer you to a professional specialising in burnout management.

If you know someone who may be experiencing parental burnout, Dr Imms says that listening, without solving their problems, can be invaluable, as well as gentle encouragement for them to seek professional help.

Parental Burnout also offers a free online test to assess if you are experiencing parental burnout.