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Parental burnout is on the rise in the UK, especially after COVID-19 and lockdowns. The term “burnout” is usually associated with high-flying careers – people who work excessive hours and sacrifice their work-life balance for success in their job, or people so focussed on a cause that they neglect all other aspects of their lives.
However, it is not just work-related matters that can cause burnout. Parenting, which could also be viewed as a full-time “job”, can also have risk factors that can, if left unchecked, lead to burnout. The biggest difference between the two is that you can resign from a job, removing yourself from the situation that is causing you excessive stress and find yourself a less stressful, more fulfilling role.
Parenting, however, is a lifetime commitment; resigning is not really an option. This is why it is so important to recognise the signs of any impending parental burnout and begin to put strategies in place to deal with it before total burnout happens.
Parental burnout was first identified in the early 1980s and has been described as “an exhaustion syndrome, characterised by feeling physically and mentally overwhelmed by their role as a parent” by researchers Isabelle Roskam and Moïra Mikolajczak. They have recently been studying Parental Burnout in France and have developed a test to help determine “Am I Suffering From Parental Burnout?”.
As burnout is such a gradual progression, many parents don’t start to realise that they are at risk of burnout until it has started to take hold. But it is never too late to halt and to deal with burnout in order to reverse its effects before they develop into more serious physical or mental health issues.
The key is being self-aware and recognising some of the “red flags” which indicate that you may be heading towards burnout. Knowing when you need to recharge your batteries and acting upon it can avoid exhaustion and potential burnout.
Some of these red flags can include:
- Short temper – You may be snapping at your children or partner. Things that you would have let go in the past, now trigger feelings of anger.
- Limited tolerance – Little things that you might not have even noticed previously now irritate you; you have little or no patience with tasks, your children, or other people.
- Foggy brain – This involves memory problems, a lack of mental clarity, and an inability to focus.
- Heightened sensitivity to your emotions and environment – This can include becoming sensitive to bright light, loud sounds, crowded places, and even eye contact in social situations, as well as welling up or crying for little or no reason.
- Disruptions in sleep patterns – Waking early, sleeping late, waking through the night, tossing and turning so not really resting.
- Headaches – experiencing an increase in headaches, waking up with a headache that doesn’t go away through the day.
- Confusion or forgetfulness – These can be caused by depression, lack of sleep and bad nutrition.
- Upset stomach – In some people, stress slows down digestion, causing bloating, pain and constipation, while in others it speeds it up, causing diarrhoea and frequent trips to the loo. Some people lose their appetite completely. Stress can also worsen digestive conditions like stomach ulcers and irritable bowel syndrome.
- Anxiety – Chronic anxiety can be debilitating and lead to irrational thoughts and fears that interfere with your daily life. You should contact your GP or NHS 111 if you have heightened feelings of anxiety.
- Depression – There are many symptoms of depression, including low mood, feelings of hopelessness, low self-esteem, lack of energy and problems with sleep. The more symptoms someone has, the more likely they are to be depressed. You should contact your GP or NHS 111 if you feel you may be suffering with depression.
- Feelings of isolation – Is the sense of being alone even with others around, being separated from others, either socially or emotionally, that may lead a person to feel anxious.
- Feeling overwhelmed – Everyone occasionally feels overwhelmed by expectations, responsibilities and a lack of time, however, if left unchecked it can be detrimental to your mental health.
- Breakdown of communication with others – Through isolation or lack of active listening or snapping responses which can lead to.
- Increase in conflict, misunderstandings, etc, especially with your partner.
- Obsessive compulsive tendencies – Repeatedly checking in on loved ones to make sure they’re safe or putting more stress on yourself by excessive washing or cleaning because you feel you are not doing a good enough job.
- Using food, drugs, or alcohol to cope. Parents often joke about it being “wine o’clock” when the children are in bed, but habitual drinking to unwind does not solve the problem and often leads to more serious issues.
What Causes Parental Burnout?
One of the main causes of parental burnout has been identified as experiencing high levels of stress with little or no support or resources available to help cope with the stress. You may have been coping with a sick child over a long period of time, or a child that has behavioural issues, and you have become exhausted by these emotionally or physically demanding situations.
It may also be caused by the stress of parenting alone or having a new baby in the family. Frankly, any stressful situation, even day-to-day parenting, has the potential to cause parental burnout if that stress is not managed effectively. Unfortunately, many parents don’t admit to experiencing these stresses as they fear judgement of not being able to cope. You need to recognise that asking for help is a sign of strength not a sign of weakness or failure to cope.
Over the past year or so, the instances of parental burnout have increased, due to the impact of the COVID-19 new national restrictions imposing lockdowns and home schooling situations on to parents. Parents from single adult homes, lower income families and parents of children with special education needs have been particularly affected by the additional pressures.
Based on data from over 6,000 UK parents, recent research by Oxford University is showing that parents who had young children (10 or younger) living in the household reported particularly high stress during the first lockdown and around a third of them (36%) were substantially worried about their children’s behaviour at that time.
In contrast, a smaller percentage (28%) of parents or carers who had older children only (11 or older) were worried about their children’s behaviour during the first lockdown, but this group had differing concerns as nearly half (45%) of this group were worrying about their children’s future.
Many families may be experiencing increased stress due to working from home, and in addition to this, teaching their children at home, often trying to balance the needs of more than one child of differing ages and abilities, with little or no experience of teaching and limited resources. Concerns over employment, being able to work effectively with children to keep them quiet and entertained, and the worry of exposure to COVID-19 all adds to the pressure.
A poll commissioned exclusively by Good Morning Britain, by Savanta ComRes, interviewed 1,036 UK parents of children aged 4–18 online from 5-8 February 2021 to find out about the effects home schooling and working from home was having on their mental health.
Their poll showed that:
- 45% of parents feel burnt out.
- 26% feel like bad parents.
- 30% often feel lonely.
- 27% say having children at home has negatively affected their work.
- 64% say this latest lockdown is emotionally tougher than previous ones.
- 10% say they feel like crying every single day.
The Effects of Burnout
Similar to job burnout, parental burnout can have effects on both your physical and mental health and may also have knock-on effects on relationships with your partner, friends and family and your children. Burnout manifests itself as emotional (feeling like you can’t cope), cognitive (not being able to think properly) and physical (fatigue).
At the extreme, parental burnout can increase the risk for child abuse and neglect, which is not surprising, as research has indicated that parental stress is a risk factor for both domestic violence in general and child abuse more specifically. The risk for abusive behaviour increases as levels of parental stress increase.
When full burnout finally kicks in, parents begin to feel total stress and exhaustion from being around their children. It is usual for parents to imagine the possibilities of walking away from family life, just packing a bag and taking off. However, as a parent, you can’t just get up and go, you have responsibilities, people that rely on you, so it becomes a vicious circle unless you deal with the stressors and look for help.
How do you Deal with Parental Burnout?
When the pressure and expectations of parenting have become all too much, take time out, let go for the time being of the unimportant things.
You may find this challenging if you have always been on top of things – the house is as clean as a new pin, the children have schedules you keep to unfailingly – but to be good parents you don’t always have to be perfect people.
Looking after your own and your family’s physical, mental and emotional health is the number one priority; other tasks on your never-ending to-do list will eventually get done, and if not by you, why not ask for help?
Additional help and support as well as some changes to your daily life will help to improve the situation, enabling you to cope better with the stressors. Here are some practical actions you can take:
Talk to your partner, if you have one, or close relative or friend if you don’t. This may sound obvious, but your partner, close relative or friend can be one of the best forms of support for preventing or alleviating parental burnout.
It is important to remember that no one is a mind reader; be specific when you ask your partner (or anyone) for help. “I would really appreciate it if you could tidy up the kitchen” is easier for your partner to understand rather than them trying to figure out what “this place is a mess” means in terms of helping you.
Make sleep a priority. Good sleep is an essential requirement to maintain both physical and mental wellbeing. With children, it may be difficult to enjoy a full night of unbroken sleep all the time, but try to get as much rest as you can.
Is there a friend or relative that can childmind for a while so you can catch up on your sleep? Try and create a “sanctuary” away from the children, listen to relaxing music or lose yourself in a good book, even for a short time, to take you mind off the stress. Relaxation techniques such as yoga or mindfulness may also help to de-stress and help your sleep pattern.
Take care of your physical wellbeing. Exercise is a great stress reliever. Is it possible to walk the children to school or get off the bus a stop earlier or park the car a little further away? Not only will you benefit from the walk, the children will too. When the children are not at school, schedule in time to walk or cycle as a family – the housework can always wait a while.
Ensure that you are eating well. Processed, caffeinated or sugary foods can make stress levels worse so try to avoid these. Can you make “cooking from scratch” an activity to do with the children? Everyone benefits and you can also have fun, which helps to relieve stress. Don’t leave eating until late in the evening as this can have an adverse effect on your digestive system; try to eat a few hours before bed and don’t just grab something on the go, sit down for a meal to aid digestion.
Try to avoid the use of drugs and alcohol as a means to alleviate stress or as a coping mechanism. The misuse of these substances can only have the effect of making stress worse and can possibly lead to addiction.
Learn how to say no, and remember when you do, that you are refusing the request not the person.
Talk to other parents – you are not alone in finding parenting stressful, and talking to others about their experiences and ways of coping can help. Online sites such as Mumsnet have chat facilities, or is there a parent group in your local area? NCT list local area social activities for parents such as coffee mornings and get-togethers. Does your child’s school have a parent group?
If you are not comfortable talking to people who you know, you can contact these chatlines:
If you are concerned about your mental or physical health then your GP or NHS 111 can help.
Helping Others to Deal with Burnout
If you notice that a friend or family member appears to be struggling, you could help by just asking them if there is anything you can do for them. They may not want to ask for help but just knowing that there is a helping hand available can make this easier.
Let them know that you have some free time so if they need anything to let you know, rather than suggesting what you will do. When people are stressed out, they often find asking for help empowering whereas someone taking over, however well meant, can be disempowering and may add to their negative thoughts about themselves.