Every parent has experienced that moment. Maybe it’s an inconsolable baby after yet another sleepless night. Maybe it is a willful toddler in the midst of a raging tantrum on the floor of a crowded supermarket. Maybe it’s a teenager with an endless list of grievances, slamming the door at the end of the day. And there it is, that overwhelming desire to grab your purse, slam the door, leave it all behind and never to come back.
Parenting is anything but easy. And its darker side is finally being recognized. Parental burnout was first mentioned in 1983 by Edith Lanstrom in her book Christian Parent Burnout. More and more studies have come out in recent years as we learn more about the phenomenon.
According to researcher Moïra Mikolacjak from UC Louvain in Belgium who specializes in studying parental burnout, “this condition is characterized by an overwhelming exhaustion related to one’s parental role, an emotional distancing from one’s children, and a sense of parental ineffectiveness.”
For Krista Malais, founder of the Relief – Parenting Respite and Resource Center, consequences of parental burnout reach far and deep. “The obvious dangers of parental burnout include physical, emotional, mental health,” she tells Parentology. “These may lead to other, more conspicuous, consequences such as weight loss or gain, gastrointestinal issues, sleep disorders, relationship breakdowns with partners, children, family and friends, and/or a loss of the parent’s self-identity.”
In some cases, researchers have also linked parental burnout to escape ideation and even neglectful and violent behaviors.
Parental burnout is widespread and could affect up to 14% of parents. Caregivers of children with chronic illnesses and mental disabilities are extremely vulnerable. They deal with the combined stress of challenging parenting experience, worrying about the future of their children, and financial pressure. Those extra pressures come in addition to typical child-rearing if they have other children. However, parents who have high expectations about parenting, or are high-achievers and perfectionists, are also at risk of parental burnout in the long run.
Thankfully, there are ways to cope and even prevent parental burnout.
“Structure your lives in a way that lessens the likelihood of burning out: set boundaries (saying “no”), limit your obligations, and keep priorities of your health and children above the ‘shoulds,’ Malais says. “Finding ways to reduce our daily task list (such as double-batching meals, outsourcing errands, sharing responsibilities with others, etc.) can also act as a preventative to burning out.”
Malais continues, “That being said, it’s important to recognize we live in a society that doesn’t support families; our cultural norm is to do it all and do it independently. This isn’t sustainable, nor is it desirable. By honestly talking about our realities as parents, building a supportive community with others, and promoting policies that protect and care for families, we can hopefully change the burnout culture that is our current model of parenting. “
Psychology Today: The Burnout We Can’t Talk About
Frontiers in Psychology: Exhausted Parents
New York Times: How to Avoid Burnout When You Have Little Ones
Science Daily: Parental Burnout
Psychology Today: How to Cope with Parental Burnout