Parental burnout is still a somewhat taboo subject. Overwhelmed parents struggling with exhaustion, fear, shame, stress, anxiety and low energy levels are still unwilling to speak out for fear of being judged as incapable, incompetent or “not good enough” parents. Yet in these pandemic times, more and more parents are suffering from parental burnout.
When parents are exhausted, everyone in the family suffers. In a recent study, researchers found that parental burnout can also lead to “neglectful and violent behavior toward one’s children.” They found that parents suffering from burnout were more likely to use verbal, psychological and even physical aggression when communicating with their kids, and they were also more likely to fantasize about giving up on parenting.
“Parent Burnout,” a book written by Joseph Procaccini and Mark Kiefaver, was among the first books to address this issue in the 1980s. Before then, only those who were “working” could talk about burnout, and as parenting was not viewed as work, the fact of being “worn out” by parenting was kept silent. Even today, parenting is still not quite considered as work despite the countless hours parents spend caring for their children. Many parents continue to feel guilty when they complain about how hard parenting is. Mothers are the most affected, but the good news is that more women are sharing their views of parenting as a physically and emotionally overwhelming experience. There are more studies about parental, and especially maternal, burnout and more women than ever are asking for help.
Parental burnout is characterized by extreme exhaustion, emotional detachment from your child, behavioral changes and joyless parenting. Although many parents may not be diagnosed as suffering from burnout, more and more parents are feeling drained and off-balance. What we now know is that burnout happens long after you start experiencing feelings such as fatigue, stress and guilt. The good news is that the available information has identified what raises your chances of burnout and provided easy tips to help you navigate your parenting journey more serenely.
Five things that raise your chances of burnout and how to avoid becoming overwhelmed:
Always being there
Always being there for your children is bad for you, and it is bad for them, too. When you are too available, you not only get worn out more quickly, you also prevent your children from learning important skills such as autonomy, critical thinking, creative problem-solving and decision-making skills. The more your children know they can depend on you for everything, the less they will try out things for themselves. Believing that you must always be present increases your chances of burnout because it increases your workload.
What to do: Instead of being constantly available for your children, let go. Your child is not helpless. Choose what you know they are capable of doing and let them do it by themselves. Identify the household chores they can help you with and get them started helping with the workload. Show them you believe that they are capable of success.
Believing harmful myths
Everyone talks about how lovely parenting is. Parenting is supposed to be a wonderful experience for parents blessed to have an opportunity to care for a beloved child. But there is a world of difference between theory and practice for many parents. Being a parent is wonderful, but it is also tiring, demanding, and emotionally and physically overwhelming. The problem is that parents — especially mothers — have always been taught to believe that they must be all things to their children, and when they “fall short,” they blame themselves for not being good enough. In the study cited earlier, most of the parents the researchers spoke to talked about guilt. They felt guilty about spending time on themselves, they felt guilty about how others would perceive them, and they felt guilty because they considered that they had failed in being the “ideal mother” they thought they would be.
What to do: Accepting that you do not have to be perfect is an important step if you want to avoid burnout. Focusing on the “lovely” side of parenting alone is likely to lead to disappointment, frustration and even shame. The truth about parenting is that there are terrific highs and incredibly low lows. Instead of striving to be a “perfect parent” who never tires and is always happy, define your own idea of parenting. Letting go of harmful myths will help you realize that parenting has both highs and lows and that you are doing a great job!
Not making time for yourself increases the risk of burnout
I do not have to tell you that you are more irritable and crankier when you are tired, stressed or preoccupied by the things happening in your life at any given time. We all are. And I do not have to tell you that when you have to deal with your child when you are in such a state, you are more likely to judge her behavior as inappropriate, or yell and react in ways that you would rather avoid. The truth is, you cannot take care of others when you are running on empty.
What to do: Prioritizing time for yourself can make a huge difference in your life. It can help recharge your batteries and make your parenting journey easier. Start by blocking off time every day, even 10 minutes, during which you do something special by yourself. If you feel like 10 minutes a day is impossible, start by doing at least one thing for yourself each week.
Lack of support
Parenting is hard work, and it is even harder when you have to do it alone or when your child has special needs. Lack of support is one of the main reasons why so many parents are exhausted. Parenting without support means having to do everything alone.
What to do: If you have a partner, talk to him or her about your need for support. Remember that support can be in the form of finding a babysitter or taking your child to a child-care center, which can give you a few hours to breathe. If you are a single parent, talk to your family to see if they are willing to babysit occasionally or even on a more frequent basis. You can only get help if you ask for it.
Talking to a professional can also provide the support you need. A professional will listen and give you tips to reduce your exhaustion.
Quest for perfection
Parental burnout is usually a sign that you are doing way too much. So, an important question to consider is how you can lighten your workload. Honestly go over everything you do in a single day/week and ask yourself:
- What can I cross out?
- What can I lighten?
- When should I start saying no?
If you are feeling exhausted and overwhelmed, please remember that parenting is hard work for everyone and do whatever you need to do to get back on track. Take a deep breath — things will be better tomorrow.