Adult life is a complex game of resource management. After all, there’s only so much time, energy, and focus to go around. How much do we spend on work? Leisure? Relationships? Ourselves? The math becomes all the more complicated when you become a parent. And the speed with which stresses can pile on can strain resources and easily leave any busy mom or dad feeling depleted and just over parenting.
While tough to admit, such feelings are quite common. And if they linger and feel unshakable, you might be experiencing what some researchers call parental burnout.
Burnout is not an official psychological diagnosis, although psychologists have been studying the phenomenon among parents since the 1980s. First studied in a work context, psychologists determined that parents also experience burnout, which manifests as a nagging exhaustion and feeling of emotional distance from your children. It often goes hand in hand with depression, anxiety, and increased alcohol consumption.
Awareness of burnout increased during the pandemic, as researchers studied the toll on families of transitioning to schooling and working from home amid a deadly health crisis. A team in Melbourne, Australia, for example, wrote that pre-COVID, fathers reported feeling highly stressed 5 to 9 percent of the time. During quarantine, that percentage spiked to 25 percent.
Authors of a pandemic-era report released in 2022 found that two-thirds of parents said they had experienced burnout. The crisis isn’t going away, says Kate Gawlik, doctor of nursing practice (DNP), associate professor of clinical nursing at The Ohio State University and co-author, with Bernadette Mazurek Melnyk, Ph.D., university chief wellness officer, of the report. Although life has returned to normal for most people, post-pandemic, Gawlik hasn’t noticed a huge drop in burnout levels among the parents they surveyed for a new report, expected in early 2024.
“I’d love to say burnout rates are lower. Based on what we went through, I would hope so,” Gawlik says. “But my instinct is that it’s probably still pretty high. The stressors are just different now, with parties, lessons, games, social events, and the rising cost of living straining family budgets.”
What Parental Burnout Looks Like
The consequences of parental burnout can be devastating. In addition to spiking depression and anxiety, parental burnout appears to dramatically increase the likelihood that parents may “insult, criticize, scream at, curse at and physically harm their children (i.e. spanking)”, The Ohio State University researchers found. In the 2022 survey of more than 1,200 parents, respondents were asked to fill out a “burnout scale,” for which they rated their agreement with statements such as, “I get/feel easily irritated with my children” and “I feel like I am in survival mode as a parent.”
The authors pinpointed several factors that appear to increase risk for burnout: the number of children living in the home, anxiety in the parent, having a child or children diagnosed with anxiety or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and parental concern that their child(ren) might have an undiagnosed mental health disorder.
It’s almost like your brain feels beyond capacity, and one little straw on top of what’s already going on feels too overwhelming to bear.
Burnout is generally more common among mothers than fathers. The Ohio survey found 68 percent of mothers reported having experienced it, compared with 42 percent of fathers. But while it’s a comparatively lower figure, the number suggests a significant number of dads are struggling.
There tends to be a lot of quiet suffering among men, generally, that perhaps belie how these statistics should be interpreted, says Eran Magen, Ph.D., a suicide prevention expert and founder of online parenting support websites ParentingForHumans.com and DivorcingDads.org.
“The suicide rate among men is eight times higher than the rate for women, although women make more attempts,” says Magen. “Women report more emotional distress than men, but the most extreme step – suicide – is something men do more often than women, so there’s a disconnect there.”
Burnout in parents can be chronic, with feelings of exhaustion happening more days than not for a period of time, says Christopher Min, Ph.D., a pediatric psychologist at Children’s Hospital of Orange County in California. Symptoms can vary but might include a loss of compassion (e.g., feeling like you have nothing more to give), being callous toward people, or feeling emotionally drained. You don’t empathize well because you’re having such a difficult time yourself, or you might feel that what you’re doing, professional or personally, isn’t important.
“It’s almost like your brain feels beyond capacity, and one little straw on top of what’s already going on feels too overwhelming to bear,” says Neha Chaudhary, MD, a child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist, chief medical officer at Modern Health and faculty member at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. This, she adds, “either leaves you quick to react or you somewhat shut down, to protect yourself and your energy.”
There’s a trusted formula for how to reduce burnout and burnout risk: decrease stress and increase resources.
Any thoughts of hurting yourself or your child are a huge red flag that signals you should seek professional help immediately, Gawlik says. Other burnout signs that are cause for alarm are feeling emotionally detached from your children, a loss of empathy toward your child or family, or feeling like you can’t enjoy anything.
While it can feel impossible to crawl back from the feelings of total depletion, especially when you have young kids, it certainly isn’t. In fact, Gawlik says, there’s a trusted formula for how to reduce burnout and burnout risk: decrease stress and increase resources. It isn’t always easy figuring out which tasks need to stay at the top of the list and which you can ditch, she says. But little changes to your mindset and your to-do list can help see more clearly what you can do to combat burnout.
How To Break Free of Parental Burnout
1. Let The Idea of Perfection Go
Having unrealistic, inflexible demands for yourself can accelerate feelings of burnout, Min says. Adopting a kinder, more empathetic self-talk can help. Instead of telling yourself, “I have to finish this report then grocery shop so I can cook dinner. If not, I’m a failure.” Instead, say, “I’m going to strive to finish work and if I have time, I will go to the grocery store and cook tonight.”
Another aspect of this comes back to resource management. Think about which aspects of your life are draining you and sapping your energy. Then ask yourself whether any of the draining items can come off your plate, or even just paused temporarily so you can regroup, Chaudhary says. Maybe it’s letting the yardwork slip or the pile of laundry stay unfolded a little longer.
“Maybe it’s saying no to a social event or one more to-do,” Chaudhary says. “Figure it out, whatever it is, because adding self-care activities won’t help if your plate is already too full.”
2. Practice Positive Reframing
Parents who struggle with being flexible and adaptable tend to have the highest rates of burnout, Gawlik says. What can help reduce or prevent burnout is positive reframing. Practicing positive reframing can help parents go with the flow, so to speak, more often than might come naturally to them.
Positive reframing is a technique used in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) that helps people learn to find upsides in negative situations rather than dwelling on negative thoughts. It’s something anyone can do and can be more beneficial than people realize.
Parents who struggle with being flexible and adaptable tend to have the highest rates of burnout. What can help reduce or prevent burnout is positive reframing.
“Instead of thinking, ‘I have to go put kids to bed,’ think, ‘I get to put my kids to bed tonight, and not everyone has the opportunity to do that,’” Gawlik says, which can turn your perspective from task fulfillment to a moment of gratitude.
Reframing also can help you let go of internalized pressure to be a perfect parent, she continues.
“I always hesitate to tell people to lower their expectations, but it’s not always a bad thing for parents,” Gawlik says. “If the living room is a mess because the kids are playing with Legos, you can reframe it and think, ‘My kids are being creative, using their minds and not staring at a screen. Yes, the house is a mess, but I can let it go for now.’”
Seeing a situation through the eyes of your child is another helpful way to reframe, Gawlik says. Before you snap at your kid for leaving crumbs on the counter, for example, ask yourself whether you might be putting developmentally inappropriate expectations on them. In other words, did you ever tell them to wipe down the counter after making toast, or are you expecting them to instinctively know they’re supposed to clean up their crumbs? Being irritated with your children is normal, she says, but it’s how you handle it that allows you to flourish as a parent.
Gawlik also learned to take a beat before saying “no” to her children, to do a quick cost-benefit analysis first.
“It’s a cognitive strategy to take a minute to think about why I’m saying no,” she says. “If it’s insignificant, like they want to wear pajamas to school, that’s not a battle I need to get into.”
3. Don’t Ignore Concerns About Kids’ Mental Health
Gawlik was surprised that according to their survey, worry that children might have an undiagnosed mental health condition was a big contributor to parental burnout. Seventy-two percent of parents with this concern said they felt burned out, she says, which suggests it’s probably helpful to be proactive about getting kids evaluated.
“Having a diagnosis is better than chronic worry that something is wrong but you don’t know what it is,” she says.
The earlier a child is diagnosed with a learning disability or mental health challenge, the earlier potential difficulties can be addressed, Magen adds. And an official diagnosis also opens up opportunities for children to receive support at school.
It’s no longer the case that having a diagnosed condition puts kids at a disadvantage, Magen says. But the issue needs to be managed carefully so children don’t feel stigmatized.
“Parents who aren’t sure how to talk about the diagnosis with their children should ask the person doing the assessment how to address it,” Magen says. “They’ll have great answers about nonstressful ways to explain it to kids.”
4. Leverage Your Resources
Social relationships are important for mental wellbeing and burnout prevention, Gawlik says. Just talking about how you’re feeling with other parents, friends, and family members can offset some of the mental burden and make you feel better.
And if appropriate, ask whether family members and friends might be able to help with childcare. Utilize, or organize, a carpool to school, sports or activities, and consider how your kids can help with household chores.
5. Build Self-Care Into Your Routine…
Self-care can seem laughable to parents who feel like they have no free time to think about themselves. The solution? Make it part of your daily routine, Min says.
Plan to take time to enjoy coffee in the morning or listen to music while walking the dog rather than scrolling through work email. Set a timer for five minutes and just look out the window and notice the trees and people walking by.
Physical activity is a natural mood enhancer, so a 15-minute walk around the neighborhood or quick workout provides a lot of bang for your buck in terms of your ability to recharge and fight burnout.
6. … And Make Self-Care About Growth, Not Just Escape
Men don’t always feel included in conversations about “self-care,” Magen says, as they typically include suggestions for things that don’t appeal to a lot of men, such as a spa day or bubble bath. Guys might prefer instead to watch TV or play video games uninterrupted when they want to relax. Wanting to zone out is understandable, but those activities don’t help reduce stress in a meaningful way, Magen says.
Wanting to zone out is understandable, but those activities don’t help reduce stress in a meaningful way.
Self-care can be divided into three categories: escapes, recharges, and growth, Magen says. Escape is hitting pause on stress – stuff that’s easy to do and requires little energy, such as playing video games. But after those pauses, you zoom back to the same stress level as before.
Recharging requires a little more energy, such as making time to stretch or go hiking, but afterward, you feel better. “You’ve refilled your battery, instead of just stopping the drain,” says Magen.
Growth takes more commitment, but it’s essentially increasing the charge on your battery. Things like taking a cooking, drawing or martial arts class can improve mental health in a more lasting and substantial way. Activities and pursuits that encourage being outdoors and socializing help keep you charged.
“A class or weekly call or outing with a friend helps make sure your default activity is not being alone with a video game,” he says. “It can be enormously helpful to create a routine that establishes wellness, rather than waiting for something to go wrong and then trying to react.”
It’s also helpful to remember that burnout is not a singular feeling. Typically parents feel alone and like they’re the only ones feeling burned out by parenthood, Gawlik says. It’s usually a great relief to them to know they’re not, and that such feelings are often temporary.
“All parents want what’s best for their children,” Gawlik says. “But an important part of that is doing what’s good for us, too, by figuring out where we can decrease some stress and strengthen our systems of support.”