Parental burnout

Parental burnout symptoms include physical exhaustion and emotional burnout

You’ve probably heard about burnout in the workplace, but did you know that parents can experience burnout too? If you feel as though you’re in survival mode, you’re completely worn out and struggling to enjoy being with your children then you might be suffering from parental burnout. Parental burnout falls somewhere between stress and depression.

Parental burnout symptoms

Physical and emotional exhaustion

Burnout can leave you feeling extreme fatigue, completely overextended and depleted. It’s not uncommon for parents with burnout to describe themselves feeling ‘worn out’, and reaching a point that they ‘can’t take it any more’.

“If I had to describe it, I would say that it’s like suffering a giant fatigue which goes along with a kind of constant nervousness.” 

Emotional distance from your children

Many parents experiencing burnout describe feeling detached from their day-to-day life, or like they are ‘going through the motions’. Burnout can make it difficult to enjoy being with your kids and to show them affection or love.

“I was there physically but I was mentally absent.”

Feeling incompetent

Parental burnout can leave parents feeling that they’re not doing a good job – that they’re not the ‘perfect parent’ or they’re not the parent they used to be. They don’t feel productive or gain any sense of achievement in their role as a parent. This can take away their confidence and overall sense of enjoyment and satisfaction.

“As I faced these difficulties with my children, and saw the parts most horrible of me, I got so scared and destabilised that I completely stopped feeling confident as a mother. Family life had become like hell, and I was unable to manage.”

Physical parental burnout symptoms

Parents can also experience physical symptoms, like headaches and tiredness. For some, the thought of the day ahead fills them with feelings of exhaustion. Some parents also report being more prone to illness (for example, more likely to get a cold) as they feel run down both physically and mentally.

“Pain in the neck, tinnitus, headaches …I was also dizzy, and felt sick as if I had flu, everything was like turning around me.”

Loneliness and guilt

Lack of energy and opportunities to go out and recharge can also lead to loneliness and isolation. Many parents also experience shame around how they’re feeling, which can make it harder to ask for help.

“I could not share this. I was very, very afraid of other people’s judgment and misunderstanding.”

How common is parental burnout?

The rate of burnout ranges from two per cent to 14 per cent – and it varies from country to country. Those in cultures that do not rely on extended family and support networks, are more likely to experience burnout. Burnout can affect both mothers and fathers.

Why does it happen?

Research has shown that parental burnout is linked to several different factors:

Employment: Employed mothers working full time feel less emotionally exhausted than mothers working part-time, or more than part-time.

The number of children you have: The more children you have and having a large age gap between children are risk factors for burnout.

Your child’s developmental stage: having infants is a greater risk factor for emotional exhaustion.

Access to support: lower access to practical and emotional support can increase your risk of burnout.

Your child’s needs:  Having a child with a disability places greater demands on parents and increases the likelihood of burnout.

Perfectionism: Striving to be a perfect parent, rather than “good enough” can also place parents at risk of burning out.

“I think that’s why I got exhausted. If I had been able to let go instead of wanting everything to be perfect, maybe I would not have gone crazy.”

How is parent burnout different from postnatal depression?

Research has shown that while there are some similarities between depression and parental burnout, there are also some differences:

  • Burnout usually occurs in parents with children who are over 18 months of age.
  • Burnout is usually linked to parental traits, and to a lesser extent social and relationship factors (like depression is).
  • The low mood due to burnout tends to be related to parenting specifically, and not other aspects of life (such as work).

How to deal with parental burnout

It’s important to know that if you feel like you might be experiencing parental burnout then you’re not alone. Help is available. You don’t have to suffer in silence. In fact, getting help early may prevent burnout developing into depression. Burnout treatment may include:

  • Addressing lack of sleep: This may include sleep hygiene (for example, avoiding caffeinated drinks or taking a warm bath), and other strategies to assist with disrupted sleep.
  • Prioritising self-care: Making time for interests and hobbies outside of parenting. This can help you to have a proper break and recharge your batteries.
  • Parenting support: This may consist of education around parenting skills, “good-enough” parenting, child development and helping you understand age-appropriate expectations for your little ones.
  • Seeking support: Asking friends and family for assistance and seeking professional help if required. Even small practical things can help you to get some ‘you time’ back.

If you are continuing to struggle:

  • Consulting your GP: This can help rule out any other medical issues which may be contributing to feelings of exhaustion.
  • Psychological therapy: Therapy can help with concerns around self-esteem, perfectionistic thinking, self-compassion and regulating emotions.

To find a health professional who can undertake an assessment and help you identify whether you may be experiencing anxiety, depression or symptoms of burnout, search the e-COPE Directory below.