Parental Burnout: Expert Shares Signs and Tips Parents Need to Know
We all know that life as a parent can be stressful. Some parent’s feel like they can never catch a break, especially due to Covid-19 keeping kids at home during the designated alone time that all parents need. If you have noticed that you have been in a constant funk or have been developing more stress, that could be signs that you are experiencing parental burnout.
We spoke with Natalie Weder, MDa senior, adult, child and adolescent psychiatrist at the Child Mind Institute about some common signs of parental burnout and what steps you can take to prevent it.
First off, can you talk a little bit about what parental burnout is?
Typically as a parent you spend a lot of time taking care of your children, spending a lot of your energy making sure they’re safe, making sure that they are stimulated, making sure they have what they need. So sometimes parents, either because of environmental aspects like Covid or all of a sudden having to be teachers and tutors in addition to just parenting because they are studying from home, or you have less access to resources that you would access otherwise, have to spend so much time taking care of kids that sometimes they start neglecting their own needs.
As a result, they can experience burnout, and burnout has different aspects to it: One is the typical you feel very fatigue, you feel very exhausted and it’s hard to feel that you recover from that exhaustion. There is also this sense of either shame or guilt because you know you’re not supposed to ever feel bad about being a parent or you’re supposed to always enjoy time with your kids and those types of things.
You can also start feeling kind of emotionally distant from your kids because there is so much exhaustion and it’s so constant that it’s very hard to then feel a sense of wanting to connect or being able to connect. It can also have a toll on your mental health because you feel more isolated, you feel sad, it’s hard to find the joy in things.
What are some of the most common signs of a burnout the parents should look out for?
The most common ones tend to be excessive fatigue, feeling that you are exhausted all the time, feeling like you feel more distant from your children that you can’t be emotionally present or that you can’t find the emotional resources or the emotional availability to be connected with them. And then kind of finding it hard to enjoy things and enjoy being a parent, enjoying your time with them and feeling more joy in the moment.
How has parental burnout been even harder since the start of Covid?
I think the way we typically as parents balance the needs of our children and what we have to sacrifice and invest daily in their well being, is by having breaks and having them have their own structure while you do things that are important to you and taking care of your own needs and well being.
Also using your community as your support. We know that in cultures where the role of parenting is to some extent shared or supported by family members, friends or the community and there tends to be less burnout because there’s a sense of shared experience and you tend to have more support. Whereas in more individualistic cultures where it’s typically just one or two parents- it can typically feel more intense. So I think with Covid, not being able to first have our structure and routine which we all depend on so much for well being is totally destroyed or changed.
Also the sense of uncertainty, not knowing when it’s going to end- we don’t have that. You never know when the new variant’s going to come or when schools are going to shut down and someones going to get sick and you’re going to have to quarantine. Also not being able to use your support system- no playdates, no birthday parties, no visiting the grandparents, no letting them have a sleepover with someone- those are all moments in which you would typically get some degree of rest.
How could parental burnout affect kids?
Kids are very perceptive and they know their parents really well. So they can sense this- they notice this fatigue and they notice this lack of being emotionally present or this lack of enthusiasm. And so the kids first start worrying about their parents because they notice that something is wrong. Secondly they many times tend to internalize things, saying “oh maybe this is my fault”, “maybe I’m not being a good child” and kids can feel guilty themselves.
Sometimes kids also try to use their own strategies to help the parent and sometimes that makes things worse because they might demand even more attention because they are worried about the bond or they’re worried about the parent and that ends up being more stressful for the parent. Sometimes when a parent is experiencing burnout, they don’t have the same degree of emotional resources so they can lose their temper, they can be more irritable, they can snap or they can be angry more and kids tend to feel that.
What are some changes you can make into your regular routine to help prevent parental burnout?
The first thing is to feel comfortable talking about it. Really work on the guilt and be able to vent to people that you trust or to other parents, whoever is in your support system that’s an adult. Being able to talk about your feelings, being able to talk about your problems just in itself can be a huge relief. The other piece is to evaluate your stress.
Sometimes when we’re so stressed out we can just go on automatic and don’t stop to think and pause to see what’s happening. So get a sense of “How am I doing?”, “What do I need?”, “What’s missing in my life?”. Then to really work on consistency and self care. Sometimes parents feel like they have to spend every minute with their child and if they don’t or they go out to exercise, they are neglecting them when in fact the better the well being of the parent, the better the well being of the child .
For parents that are trying to keep it all together, what kinds of techniques can they use to help with their parental burnout?
Some of the things we have mentioned should help with the burnout that they have. Now if it’s going beyond- like sometimes it starts as stress and burnout and then it can end up in depression or extreme anxiety- to the point where it is impairing their wellbeing or the wellbeing of the family that they seek out professional help. There are ways and treatments available to help them feel less depressed or feel less anxious and so on.