Rates of parental burnout increased in the last two years, with mums and dads of primary school children particularly affected
Over the last 18 months, I’ve written and talked a lot about the pressure that parents and families have been under with the pandemic and the associated lockdowns. Family life got turned on its head. For some families it was an incredibly positive flip, allowing parents and children feel like they had precious time together. In other families it was very negative, with financial and/or working-from-home pressures adding stress and distress to family interactions.
Research about parental burnout during the pandemic is starting to be published and it makes for sombre reading. Australian research, for example, showed that parents reported higher levels of mental distress during the pandemic, with parents of primary school age children reporting the highest distress. Portuguese researchers, as part of a huge international study, reported increased parental burnout among parents during their country’s second lockdown, compared to the first lockdown.
Parental burnout has been studied since the 1980s, looking initially at parents of children with chronic illnesses. More recently, Belgian researchers have developed a scale, the Parental Burnout Assessment (PBA), which is being used in that big international study of parents generally. At its simplest, those researchers describe burnout as the result of too much stress for a parent and not enough resources to cope.
There are four key stages, or elements, that are present in parental burnout. The first stage is overwhelming exhaustion. That exhaustion can be physical from the volume of work involved, or it can be emotional, from something like conflict with a child or teenager.
Secondly, parents tend to detach themselves from their child to preserve their energy. They may actively avoid parenting responsibilities, perhaps plonking them in front of the TV or a screen all day. This distancing can then lead to the third element, a loss of fulfilment in their role as a parent. At this point, a parent may not be able to stand being around their child, or not be able to bear being a parent anymore.
Because of this exhaustion, distancing and lack of fulfilment, parents often experience the fourth element of burnout, huge amounts of shame and guilt, such that they report a clear contrast between the parent they used to be, the parent they would like to be and the parent they have become. It is a very distressing state to arrive at.
Unlike other forms of burnout, however, parents can’t just stop, or move to a different family to be the parent of other kids. Consequently, many burned-out parents can feel stuck. It is no surprise that rates of burnout increased in the pandemic, since many of the typical risk factors for parental burnout, such as financial insecurity, social isolation and lack of support were exacerbated by the restrictions imposed in response to Covid-19.
The first step in managing such burnout is to talk to someone supportive. Finding social support, someone who is understanding and who cares, is critical. Admitting that you need help can often be the hardest step, since shame and isolation are key hallmarks of the burnout itself. Yet burnout is incredibly common. Data from that big international study showed that up to five million American parents experience it each year. Taking the risk of opening up to someone about the distress you are feeling is an important step in healing.
Many elements of parental self-care then become important to reduce the stresses, or increase your coping strategies. For example, you may want to do a parenting course to increase your sense of skill in managing your children, perhaps also making some connections with other parents, reassuring you that you are not alone in your struggles.
Maybe there are small changes you can make like prioritising tasks, or changing routines to reduce your workload, or the timing of the work you need to do, that will reduce certain stressors. Big stressors (like significant relationship conflict) may not be that easy to change, so focus on changing those things that you can change.
Your attitude is also critical to the level of stress that you may experience. With the lockdowns, for example, those parents who saw it as a positive opportunity for increased family time, compared to a negative experience of unwanted family time, showed lower levels of burnout. Finding the positives, acknowledging those things you can be grateful for, can reframe your thinking, allowing you to put less pressure on yourself or be less critical of yourself.
Allowing some self-compassion to show will also help. Nobody expects perfection. Be kind to yourself. It has been an extraordinarily pressured 18 months.