Burnout is most often talked about in relation to the workplace - people feeling burnt-out by occupations like nursing, social work, teaching. A lot of research has gone into looking at jobs that are likely to experience burnout, but we know that burnout can impact parents too. Basically, anyone that is caring for other people can become burnt-out by their role and this can impact on the caregiving role. We know that mums (and many dads) have a huge mental and physical load associated and that in some cases support is not close at hand; and if it is, it may be difficult to ask for. It is also common for parents to place their own needs on the backburner, feeling selfish for wanting to do things that could help to recharge their batteries. When this goes on for a long period of time, this can lead to some serious consequences for parents and kids.
When the daily stress of parenting becomes chronic it can turn into parental burnout, an intense exhaustion that leads parents to feel detached from their children and unsure of their parenting abilities. We conceptualise stress as the demands in your role as a carer exceeding the resources you have to cope- these could be financial resources, emotional resources, time, and support.
What is commonly seen with parental burnout is:
1. Physical and emotional exhaustion that does not improve with extra sleep,
2. Emotional distance from your child(ren) and,
3. Subsequent feelings of incompetence in your role as parent.
It is easy to imagine how this cycle might go around and around, spiralling into some pretty negative thoughts, feelings and behaviours. You might find that while exhaustion is common for parents, when you are feeling burnt-out, this is also coupled with a fear that you will always feel this tired because nothing seems to help. Added to that, you might see changes in how you interact with your kids, losing some of the connection, compassion and empathy for them. This is probably the most difficult part of burnout to reconcile mentally as many parents know they love their kids but struggle to comfort them when they are crying, draw clear boundaries or spend quality time with their kids because everything feels too hard. People describe this emotional distance as like a pane of glass between themselves and their children which means that while they can see them and are physically with them, mentally they feel far away and disconnected.
If burnout persists this could lead to more damaging interactions with kids and family members including being permanently snappy, forgetful and putting in less effort in areas that you once valued- like cooking meals or playing games with the kids. And this is where the final part of burnout comes in- The GUILT and feeling like you are just not doing a very good job. This will often trouble parents late at night as they replay the day in their mind. And so, the cycle continues…
Another common outcome of parental burnout is dreaming of escaping from the situation. Many parents report having fantasies about running away, being admitted to hospital for something relatively minor (but major enough to require a hospital stay) or dreams of a different life. When life feels so draining and overwhelming it is easy to see how escape fantasies can start to take hold, often feeling like a better outcome than the current reality.
It is important at this point to distinguish between parental burnout and postnatal depression or anxiety. While they might have similar symptoms, like fatigue, lack of energy, loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed, parental burnout is most often seen after a period of caregiving that is longer than 18 months and the feeling of low mood is only in relation to the role and tasks of being a parent. This means that parents who are burnout at home might find that they still have energy for their work role, social engagements or hobbies.
While the behaviours associated with parental burnout can impact on family members, we also know that experiencing burnout can also have a physical impact on the individual. These could include frequent headaches, changes to eating patterns (more or less and then resulting weight loss or gain), feeling on high alert, stomach complaints, needing stimulants like sugar, coffee or alcohol and difficulty sleeping despite the exhaustion.
So now that we know this information about burnout what can we do about it? Here are a few tips that can help if you notice that you are already experiencing burnout or are close to it.
Self-care - while self-care is important it is definitely not the only answer for burnout. It is good to reconnect with things that help you to feel good about yourself like eating well, moving your body, socialising and meditation but these alone will not completely solve a problem of burnout. Consider this as one step that you can take now to improve things as long as this does not place added demand on you right now.
Get help for yourself (professional) – seeking out professional support when suffering burnout is a key step. This can help you to consider what has contributed to the current situation and what steps you can take to help with the situation. A professional can also assess your levels of anxiety as these often play a part in burnout.
Delegate and/or say no – if you have support and can delegate tasks this is an ideal way of reducing the load a bit. If your budget allows for it you can pay for additional support (babysitters, day-care/ after school care or services for cooking, cleaning or ironing). Sometimes just as important as offloading tasks is saying no to additional things that come your way. This can certainly be difficult at first if you are usually inclined to say yes to everything but will get easier with time.
Change your expectations- one thing that comes up repeatedly in the parental burnout research is that parents have unrealistic and incredibly high expectations of what they can and should be doing in their role as a mum or dad. This might mean simplifying things that you might once have wanted to be ‘perfect’ like dinners, special occasion celebrations, how your house looks and how many activities your kids do. Reducing these high expectations can help to reduce the perceived demands on parents.