A typical morning at my house usually involves the following: firing off a barrage of emails I should’ve sent the day before. Packing a bento box full of nutritious foods that my 7-year-old most certainly will not eat. Quickly brushing out tangled hair. And finally, scrambling to get us all out the door by 8 am.
Parenting is exhausting work. If you’re anything like me, you feel burned out a lot of the time.
We hear the word burnout thrown around quite a bit. It’s used in everything from catchy best-selling book titles to clickbait articles. The World Health Organization even recently declared it a medical issue. They define it as, “A syndrome … resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”
But while burnout is usually associated with traditional forms of work, a growing body of research is beginning to shine a light on another type related to performing labor: parental burnout.
What exactly is parental burnout?
Parental burnout is a psychological condition that occurs “when parenting stress severely and chronically overwhelms parents’ resources to cope,” according to Belgian researchers Isabelle Roskam, PhD, and Moïra Mikolajczak, PhD.
Roskam and Mikolajczak spearheaded the research that helped define and measure parental burnout. They found that it often progresses in stages, with each of the following four main symptoms building on one another:
First: Parents feel an overwhelming sense of exhaustion.
Second: To preserve their energy, parents emotionally distance themselves from their kids.
Third: Parents no longer enjoy being with their children, nor do they feel fulfilled by parenting.
Fourth: Parents no longer see themselves as the parents they used to or wanted to be. This can lead to feelings of distress, shame, and guilt.
While feeling burned out as a parent can seem deeply lonely, rest assured that you’re far from alone. Parental burnout is a worldwide phenomenon. And American parents experience some of the highest rates.
Roskam and Mikolajczak note that the following factors may increase your chances of developing it:
- Difficulty with emotion- and stress-management skills
- Inadequate support from co-parents
- Difficulty with parenting skills
- Parenting children with special needs
- Working part-time or solely as a stay-at-home parent
Left unaddressed, parental burnout can worsen. It can also lead to other health issues, like sleep disorders, and ongoing parent-child relationship problems.
5 ways to bounce back from (or prevent) parental burnout
Feeling exhausted? Guilty? Unfulfilled? No matter what stage of parental burnout you’re at, these therapist-approved tips can help.
Let go of perfection
Parenting is messy. And it always will be. “Holding yourself to an unrealistic standard is setting yourself up for failure,” says Hayley Quinn, PsyD, Senior Manager of Clinical Product Experience at AbleTo. “It can cause you to see things as either perfect or all wrong while missing the middle ground.”
If you notice that you’re being hard on yourself, Quinn recommends taking a breath and reflecting on what is going well. Or, where you’ve had success.
It can also be helpful to make a list of the core values that you hold as a parent.
“Values are different from goals,” says Quinn. “They’re something you’re always moving towards. Not something you ‘achieve.’” Whenever you feel like you’ve fallen short, revisit these values to remember what’s most important to you. Then consider how you can take a small step towards them.
And don’t dwell on missteps. It’s important for our children to see that we can own our shortcomings and bounce back. So, the next time you fall short of being the “perfect” parent, remember that modeling resilience is a beautiful thing.
Recharge and regroup
It’s easy to buy into the narrative that we must set aside all of our needs to show up as a parent. But that’s simply not true. In fact, it can work against you.
“I often find that if parents cannot make space for themselves, the mind/body will go on autopilot and do it for them via burnout or other physical and mental health symptoms,” says Quinn. “I strongly encourage parents to connect with themselves, either through a hobby or personal reflection time.”
We know it’s not always possible (or easy), but it helps to tap out when you’re feeling tired. Ask for support. Take a nap. Or just take a short break.
Even better, build “you time” into your daily routine. Write down what you plan to do for yourself and when you plan to do it. Then, see how it impacts your parenting and how you feel.
“Even if the impact is that chaos didn’t ensue, it’s a good reminder that personal time does not mean your family will suffer,” says Quinn. “At best, it helps you have a stronger, more positive interaction with them when you return.”
Tap into your community
We know this one can be tricky, but consider asking for support. Can your partner or family members step up more? Could a fellow parent drive your child to school? Or host a playdate? Does your budget allow you to pay for childcare?
“Simply working on the skill of asking for help can build good parenting skills,” says Quinn. “And it prepares you for a time when more help may be available.”
Another way to feel supported? Connect with other parents — in person or online. They can help validate and normalize the challenges that come with parenting, says Quinn. “Knowing that you aren’t alone in the struggle can be incredibly helpful.”
Find moments for mindfulness
“Doing something to bring yourself into the present moment can calm both your body and mind,” says Quinn. “And it can be as simple as taking a deep breath as you go about your day.”
Give it a try now:
Take a few deep breaths. Acknowledge that this is hard work. Sometimes, it’s really hard work and we’re not at our best. That’s okay. And normal. You’re human. And you’re here because you deeply care about your role as a parent. Feel compassion for yourself. The same as you would for a friend. Sit with that feeling for a moment. Then carry it throughout your day.
Seek expert help
We all need extra support sometimes. And therapists have the skill set to provide it.
“If you’re feeling stuck or hopeless, a therapist can help you to interrupt the burnout cycle,” says Quinn. That includes identifying and prioritizing realistic ways that you can take care of yourself.
A therapist can also help you figure out those parenting values we mentioned earlier. With their help, you can learn how to live these values in your daily life.
Lastly, a therapist can help you examine your beliefs and thinking patterns and get a new perspective when it’s difficult to do so on your own.
Plus, talk therapy really works. Research shows that both individual and group sessions reduced parental burnout symptoms by 37%, negative emotions by 29%, and increased parents’ positive feelings by 18%.
You’re doing great
There’s no such thing as a perfect parent (despite what social media would have you believe). We all struggle sometimes. Turn to these tools when you’re feeling burned out. We’ll be here for you along the way.
By Katie Nave
Katie Nave is a writer and mental health advocate living in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has been featured in publications including Newsweek, Glamour, Business Insider, and Motherly. She has served as a producer for the National Women’s March and worked with organizations like Girls Inc. and CancerCare.
Clinically reviewed by Hayley Quinn, PsyD, Senior Manager of Clinical Product Experience at AbleTo.
Photo by Flamino Images/Adobe Stock. Individuals in photographs do not represent AbleTo participants.