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Parental Burnout: Causes, Signs, and Coping Methods

To date, more than 23,000 studies about job burnout have been conducted across the globe. While that’s great, job burnout isn’t the only pressing syndrome that needs to be studied by experts such as Moira Mikolajczak and Isabelle Roskam.

Before 2007, only one study of parental burnout was conducted. In the years since, M. Mikolajczak, I. Roskam, and some of their peers have started to give parental burnout the scientific attention it surely deserves. Even still, research on parental burnout is still in its infancy, with most studies being done in Belgium, Sweden, and, more specifically, the Université catholique de Louvain.

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Components of Parental Burnout

Working with other researchers like Avalosse, Raes, Brianda, and others, Mikoajczak and Roskam determined that parental burnout consists of three dimensions, which include:

  • Exhaustion: Emotional exhaustion is a big problem for parents who feel burnt out. Exhausted parents often feel that parenting requires too much involvement. They also feel as if they’ve reached the end of their figurative rope when they think about having to spend the day with their children.
  • Emotional distancing: In addition to emotional exhaustion, burnt-out parents usually experience emotional distancing from their kids. Parents in this dimension typically do the bare minimum for their children. Their interactions with their kids tend to focus on practical things without a nod to the emotional aspects of the situation at hand.
  • Feelings of Ineffectiveness: The final component of parental burnout is a sometimes overwhelming feeling of ineffectiveness. Parents suffering from this condition often feel that they’re unable to handle situations involving their kids calmly or effectively.

Although it’s distinctly different from job burnout, burnout among parents can be measured (Roskam et al., 2017). It also affects both mothers and fathers. Research further shows that the topic deserves more study as it relates to sociodemographic and marital factors, among others (Roskam and Mikolajczak, et al.). Finally, current research indicates that burnout among parents can have significant consequences on outcomes for children, such as:

  • Neglect
  • Violence
  • Escapist notions
  • Suicidal thoughts

Impacts of Parental Burnout

Feeling burnt out can take a heavy, lasting toll on the mental health of adults tasked with raising children. Depending on how burnt out you are, you may experience the following:

  • Brain fog
  • Short temper
  • Confusion
  • Forgetfulness
  • Increased levels of stress
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Urges to harm others
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Depression
  • Sleep disruptions
  • Feelings of isolation or loneliness
  • Obsessive-compulsive behaviors

The longer you feel burnt out, the more likely it is that parental burnout will have a negative impact on your physical well-being. Here are some of the physical health problems the condition can cause:

  • Hormonal imbalances
  • Decreased sex drive
  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes

Just like burnout can have a negative effect on your mental health and physical well-being, it can also impact your relationship with your co-parent. As they relate to your romantic relationship, the consequences of parental burnout can include communication breakdowns, increased tension, more frequent and intense arguments, resentments, and hurtful miscommunications.

Burnout can have severe consequences on your relationship with your kids, particularly if you’re raising young children. The condition can lead caregivers to feel as if they’re disconnected from their kids.  When they experience emotional distancing, it can make children vulnerable to serious risk factors later in life.

Stressors That Cause Parental Burnout

Many stressors can contribute to parental burnout. If you’re not communicating effectively with your significant other, your peers, or your kids, it can make the condition worse. An inability to establish and enforce boundaries can also add to burnout. If you strive to please people or you consistently exhibit people-pleasing tendencies, you increase the chances that you’ll experience burnout as you attempt to fill your parental role.

Here are some other things that can produce feelings of being burnt out:

  • Unrealistic expectations
  • Scheduling conflicts
  • Lack of resources
  • Absence of support
  • Distrust
  • Financial concerns
  • Work
  • Homeschooling
  • History of attachment disorders
  • Hesitancy to ask for help
  • Drive to achieve parental or familial perfectionism
  • Imbalance between parenting demands and rewards
  • Job loss
  • Ages of children and parents
  • Size of family
  • Kids with special needs
  • Engaging in addictive behavior

Non-stop parenting can also cause burnout. Today’s technology means kids can put demands on their parents from any location and at any time. While it’s great that children can access their parents when they need to, that same non-stop accessibility means parents are always “on the clock,” which can make caregivers feel drained.

In addition, parents are more involved with their kids these days than they used to be, which translates into less downtime and reduced time for self-care for a lot of adults. Compared to mothers from 50 years ago, modern moms spend twice as much time with their offspring. Since 1965, fathers have increased the time they spend with their kids by 300 percent.

Social media can drive parental burnout, too. When you see a post depicting the “perfect” family or raving about a child’s achievement and don’t have a competing post to share, the feelings of inadequacy or inability to “keep up with the Joneses” can stir up burnt out feelings.

It goes without saying that unusual occurrences outside the home can contribute to parental burnout as well. A good example of such a happening is the current pandemic. If you’ve experienced a lockdown in recent months or homeschooling is a relatively new normal for your family, then you know firsthand how external circumstances can influence and change your parental role and increase parental stress.

Symptoms of Parental Burnout

Mom burnout is more common than dad burnout because women continue to be the primary childcare providers in many households. While that’s true, men can still experience burnout. In fact, one study revealed that 63 percent of fathers claimed they suffered some level of burnout as parents.

Regardless of their gender, parents often exhibit symptoms when they’re in the grasp of parental burnout, such as:

  • Escape ideation
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • New health problems
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Emotional detachment
  • Moodiness
  • Frustration
  • Sleep problems or disorders
  • Increased conflict with others
  • Feelings of inadequacy or lack of accomplishment
  • Child abuse
  • Unending exhaustion
  • Inability to concentrate

How to Deal with Parental Burnout

When the responsibilities of parenthood outweigh the happy moments, it’s easy to succumb to parental burnout. When that happens, it’s important to remember that you’re not alone. The majority of mothers and fathers experience burnout at some point. In some cases, it’s fleeting, but in others, burnout can last for a long stretch of time.

The key to combatting burnout as a parent is to take action. Fighting parental burnout may seem like a battle for your sanity, but it’s actually more than that. While it’s certainly a duel for your mental health, it’s also a fight for your children’s current well-being and their future stability, self-image, and happiness.

Prioritize Caring for Yourself

One of the most effective things you can do to declare victory over burnout is to make taking care of yourself a priority. It’s impossible to care for a pint-sized family member if you’re not well taken care of yourself.

Some parents feel guilty when they spend time on themselves because it takes away from time they could spend with their kids. We can assure you that caring for yourself is the opposite of being selfish. When you care for yourself, you’ll refill your reservoir of energy and renew your outlook, which can improve the quality of the time you spend with your kids and significant other.

If you’ve been ignoring your health care needs, make an appointment to see your doctor or dentist. Has it been a while since you had a manicure or pedicure? Schedule weekly or monthly appointments at the same time for the foreseeable future so your family will know when you’ll be unavailable.

When you get up in the morning, enjoy some time alone with your thoughts before you wake the kids. Look back on everything you’ve accomplished up to this point in your life and pat yourself on the back for even the tiniest achievements. Consider what you want to do as you move forward and develop a plan to accomplish your goals.

Even if you don’t feel like it, smile when you catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror. The more you practice simple things like this, the more natural and refreshing they’ll become. Remember that the risk for falling into the depths of parental burnout increases the longer you go between self-care sessions and exercises, so make them a part of your daily life as much as possible.

Solicit Help

There’s no shame in not being able to do it all. Between working full-time, raising kids, maintaining your home, running the children to different activities, and more, it can sometimes feel like there aren’t enough hours in a day. If you’re overwhelmed with keeping up with life, ask a family member or friend for help.

You can also ask other parents you don’t know particularly well for an assist from time to time. For example, you can ask a fellow parent to split transportation duties with you if your kids play on the same team.

Depending on your needs, you can solicit help from perfect strangers, too. Are you low on groceries and can’t get to the store? Use an app like Shipt or Instacart to place an order and let a representative from one of those companies do your shopping for you. They’ll even deliver your groceries right to your door.

If your area isn’t populated enough for Instacart, Shipt, or Amazon Prime Now to have a footprint in the area, see if your grocery store offers pickup service. You can save hours every month by using the store’s pickup service because someone else will prepare your food order. In a lot of instances, the grocery’s employees will load your order into your car, so you might not even have to get out of your vehicle to get a full load of food and supplies.

Practice Self-Compassion and Forgiveness

As we stated earlier, the prevalence of parental burnout is greater among women than it is among men. While that’s the case, it’s crucial to call out parents of either gender who don’t practice self-compassion and forgiveness. Practicing both of those things can help you avoid the perfectionism trap that only perpetuates feelings of burnout.

When you practice self-compassion, you accept yourself with love, kindness, and no judgment. It’s not that you’re giving up on changing and making improvements. It’s just that you accept yourself for how you are in that moment.

By forgiving yourself, you let go of the disappointment and pain that are associated with missteps. There’s nothing wrong with being imperfect so forgive yourself for being who and what you are. It’s important to remember that you are your worst critic and that others probably see you as “all together” and in control even when you feel yourself spiraling.

Join a Support Group

Support groups aren’t about diagnosing mental health issues. Instead, they’re typically peer-led gatherings where single parents and couples can discuss their parenting experiences and lend support to one another. In general, participants have shared experiences that make it easy for attendees to relate to one another.

Given the pandemic, some support groups have shifted to an online format for their get-togethers. Other groups use a hybrid model for their gatherings, with some participants meeting in person and others attending using a digital platform like Zoom, Skype, or a Facebook Meeting Room.

Parent support groups can vary widely from one group to the next. Try out a few of them until you find one that will benefit you considering your personal circumstances.

Try Something New

It may seem counterintuitive to tell exhausted parents to try something new, but that might be just what you need to combat burnout. If you want to connect better with your partner so you can co-parent more effectively and easily, we suggest you order the Adventures from Scratch: Date Edition.

The couples adventure book includes 55+ activities you and your significant other can do together. To complete each scratch-off adventure, you’ll need to communicate and work alongside your partner. As you get closer and closer to the end of your chosen challenge, you’ll discover that you feel closer to your SO as the two of you laugh and make lasting memories.

If you feel disconnected from your kids, we encourage you to get a copy of the Adventures from Scratch: Family Edition. This book includes a bunch of adventures you can do in your home or on the fly when you’re out of town. The family adventure book is just what you need to bond with your partner and kids. Each challenge will launch you and your loved ones into new family fun territory that you can all explore and enjoy together.

Food is a universal unifying thing that brings families closer together across cultures. With that in mind, consider shaking things up in your home by signing up for subscriptions with meal kit providers. To ensure a good mix of dining options, consider signing up with at least two providers and alternate deliveries between them.

When you have meal kits delivered to your door, it’s like an invitation for your kids and partner to cook with you. The quality time you spend in the kitchen with your family will impart valuable skills to your kids, and it will draw out feelings of teamwork, camaraderie, and togetherness. Signing up with a meal kit provider can also save you time because you won’t have to shop for as many groceries throughout the week. And that’s time you can spend with your family or pampering yourself.

Work with a Therapist

If you’re stuck in the doldrums of parental burnout and can’t get out no matter what you do, it’s vital that you seek out professional help sooner rather than later. Getting a therapist immediately is even more crucial if you’re experiencing suicidal or homicidal thoughts or you’re afraid you might harm your children.

Like support groups, therapists and practices vary from one to the next. To find a fit for you, figure out the type of therapy you’re interested in, and ask your primary care doctor for recommendations.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the components of parental burnout?

Moira Mikolajczak, Isabelle Roskam, and other researchers identified three main dimensions of parental burnout: exhaustion, emotional distancing, and feelings of ineffectiveness.

What are some symptoms of parental burnout?

Parental burnout is extremely serious and should be addressed with urgency. Symptoms include escape ideation, emotional detachment, sleep problems, increased conflict, feelings of inadequacy, and more.

What are the best ways to relieve stress while enjoying family time?

Interactive activity books like Adventures From Scratch: Family Edition contain fun, silly, and engaging activities. What’s best is that you don’t even need to come up with things to do!

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