How to Handle Parental Burnout
The concept of “burnout” has undeniably been a hot topic lately, but new research shows that it isn’t just workplace pressures that can lead to overload. Typically, the word burnout describes an overwhelming state of exhaustion you might experience after prolonged, unending stress that you’re just not able to manage. Parental burnout describes almost the same reaction, but instead of being associated with work or your career like regular burnout, it’s caused by the stressors of being a parent.
Like many issues in the world today, burnout and parental burnout aren’t new concepts; they’ve both just been exacerbated by Covid-19. At the onset of the pandemic, while we were all faced with sudden worries about the wellbeing of ourselves and our loved ones, frontline and essential workers were faced with additional fears about staying safe on the job. Those of us fortunate enough to work from home scrambled to adjust to an entirely new lifestyle.
While strategizing the best way to angle our laptops to join a Zoom meeting without revealing the dirty pile of laundry in the corner, many parents were simultaneously adapting to new roles as homeschool teachers or figuring out how to host full-time daycare from home while working remotely in the next room over. This extra layer of adaptation can add an extra layer of stress, too; a survey conducted on behalf of the American Psychological Association found that 46% of parents with kids under 18 during Covid-19 rated their stress levels as high, compared to only 28% of adults without kids.
Burnout can feel devastating, but it doesn’t happen all at once. When it comes to parental burnout, it usually happens in a series of stages:
- First, you may feel overwhelmingly exhausted. Feeling tired after a long day is one thing, but parental burnout feels like a long-lasting, deep energy drain. Burnout can make you feel completely and totally consumed by exhaustion, and you might also feel that there’s no end in sight anytime soon. Your exhaustion can be physical or emotional, too, depending on your unique circumstances.
- Next, after feeling drained for so long, you may start to distance or detach yourself from your kids to try and preserve some of your energy. After handling an increased amount of stress for so long, you may feel like you just have no energy left inside you. As a kind of survival mechanism, your brain then tries to counteract the stress by creating emotional distance between you and the stressor instead.
- Finally, you may notice an emotional shift. You might not feel any pleasure in your role as a parent any longer, and wish that you could just step away.
Parental burnout is a well-documented reaction to chronic stress — one that happens because our brains are just trying to help us survive. Even though the emotions associated with burnout may feel unpleasant, they’re nothing to feel guilty or ashamed of. If you’re experiencing burnout, you’re certainly not alone in these feelings, either; one 2021 poll showed that 45% of parents felt burned out.
Unlike other jobs, parents don’t get PTO. You can put in overtime picking LEGOs off the floor, but there’s no HR department to turn to when they’re stuck in the carpet again tomorrow. So what can you do to manage the stress? According to experts, there are several small-scale changes you can make to help you get through it.
1. Talk it out.
If you’re feeling burnt out from parental duties, you are definitely not alone. However, these kinds of feelings can feel shameful to speak up about. Talking to a trusted friend or fellow parent about how you’re feeling can give you a healthy outlet for your emotions, and encourage more honesty about the difficulty many parents face. Chances are, your parent friends will likely relate to you, and you might even encourage them to open up, too.
2. Make minor adjustments.
By now, you’ve probably heard all about the Great Resignation, but what are your options when a career change is off the table? Taking small steps to minimize your stress can actually go a long way in helping with burnout. For example, you could consider cutting back on certain extracurricular activities for a more manageable schedule. Maybe your kids are dead set on their ballet lessons, but not too crazy about weekend soccer practice — it’s okay to retire the cleats and just hang on to the pointe shoes for now!
3. Reach out for support.
There’s no shame in needing a helping hand from time to time, so if you’re starting to feel burnt out, lean on your support network! If possible, you could reach out to your partner, family, or close friends for help managing certain time constraints, picking up some extra chores, or helping out wherever you need it most.
4. Let go of perfectionism.
In other words, quit should-ing yourself! Unrealistic expectations about being the perfect parent are just that: unrealistic. Research shows that parenting perfectionism leads to parental burnout. Bummed that you didn’t make it to the farmer’s market this weekend for picture-perfect fresh veggies for dinner this week? Well, did you know that frozen veggies retain their nutritional value, anyway? There’s always going to be something that you think you could be doing better, but you have to let go of perfectionist expectations. In reality, if you’re taking care of your kids in the best way you can, you’re already taking care of everything that you “should” be doing.
5. Practice self care (even in small doses).
“Self care” doesn’t have to mean taking a week-long beachside retreat. Admittedly, that might be great, but it’s not just possible for all busy parents to coordinate some lavish R&R time. Giving yourself an extra 5 minutes in the morning to drink your coffee on the front porch, or leaving a load of laundry in the basket an extra day to listen to your favorite songs and go for a walk are simple ways to make a little bit of time for yourself. And they’re both worthy uses of your time, too! This tip ties into our advice about perfectionism as well. It’s okay to prioritize yourself sometimes — even if it means letting go of certain expectations.
6. Show yourself compassion.
Because parenting is often seen as one of life’s greatest joys, tacked on to this idea is the thought that if you don’t adore being a parent 100% of the time, you’ve somehow failed. This certainly isn’t true, and in fact, it might be more concerning if you weren’t at least slightly exasperated after being woken up in the middle of the night by a sleepless kid for the third day in a row. These feelings are normal, and part of self-compassion is accepting your feelings and allowing them to exist without shame. Be mindful of what pressures you’re putting on yourself to overachieve or feel a certain way. Take a moment to remind yourself of all that you’ve achieved despite the obstacles in your way.
7. Talk to a therapist or mental health professional.
If your burnout is taking a serious toll on your mood or your ability to function on a daily basis, or if it’s just not going away, you should consider talking to a therapist, counselor, or mental health professional. Mental health professionals are trained in helping you cope with even the trickiest feelings, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with needing an extra hand.
Want more parenting and mental health tips? Check out maro parents! We’ve got plenty to go around.
“The impact of parental burnout” by Ashley Abramson for The American Psychological Association’s Monitor on Psychology. (https://www.apa.org/monitor/2021/10/cover-parental-burnout)
“How to Avoid Burnout When You Have Little Ones” by Jessica Grose for The New York Times. (https://www.nytimes.com/article/parental-burnout-guide.html)
“Parental burnout: how juggling kids and work in a global pandemic brought us to the brink” by Saima Mir for The Guardian. (https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2021/sep/08/parental-burnout-how-juggling-kids-and-work-in-a-global-pandemic-brought-us-to-the-brink)