Parental burnout is a real thing

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Chances are you've heard of burnout in the workplace - that is, mental, physical and emotional exhaustion on the job. But did you know it's possible to be burnt out by parenthood, too?

It turns out that parental burnout is a very real phenomenon, affecting between 2 to 12 per cent of mums and dads, according to a new study.

While we're not at all surprised by these findings, the notion that parents can burn out hadn't yet been studied systematically, despite being identified by clinicians and discussed in the media.

A team from Université Catholique de Louvain in Belgium set out to change this, highlighting exactly why parental burnout is an issue researchers can no longer afford to ignore. In their paper, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, the authors note: "Important sociological changes in recent decades have increased pressure on parents to bring up healthy, secure and successful children who will become well-rounded and engaged citizens. Combined with a drastic decrease in stay-at-home mothers, these changes have made parenting both increasingly demanding and increasingly difficult."

As part of their study, the researchers conducted a survey of over 2000 parents, asking them to respond to statements such as: "Through my parental role, I feel that I have a positive influence on my children", "I can no longer show my children how much I love them" and "I'm afraid that my parental role is making me uncaring". The questions covered three domains of burnout: exhaustion, inefficacy, and emotional distancing. These mirror the three areas of professional burnout: overwhelming exhaustion, a depersonalisation of the beneficiaries of one's work, and a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.

When they analysed their results, not only did the researchers find compelling evidence that parental burnout exists, distinct from general burnout and stress or depression, they also discovered that it's not exclusive to mothers.

"Although the vast majority of our participants were women - which suggests that women may still be more involved in parenting than fathers - the study confirms that burnout concerns fathers as well," the authors wrote.

So what might cause parental burnout? While causal factors weren't part of the Belgian research, the team proposed a number of theories. Factors such as a lack of support, the number of children parents have to care for, and whether children have special needs or illnesses might contribute to parental burnout, as well as the stress of work/life balance and limited time for self-care.

And the consequences can be far-reaching. "Positioning burnout on a continuum between parental stress and depression," the authors wrote, "suggests that depression may be a frequent consequence."

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Along with the risk of depression, however, the team noted other possible consequences associated with burnout including, the risk of addiction and deteriorating health. Parental disengagement could also also impact the parent-child relationship.

And it's not simply children who might be affected by a parent experiencing burnout. "As well as the child, parental burnout certainly impacts the partner, who has to compensate for his/her co-parent's withdrawal from family life and/or neglectful behaviour toward offspring," the authors wrote, adding that relationship problems are also a potential consequence of parental burnout.

So what can parents do to prevent burning out?

  • Don't be afraid to ask for help and support when you need it. There's no shame in speaking up when it's all too much. Speak to your friends, your family or your partner and make sure they know how you're feeling.
  • Practice self-care where you can, whatever that looks like for you. It might be a bath, a Netflix binge, catching up with friends or doing yoga. Prioritise it and make it a regular occurrence.
  • Eat well, get plenty of exercise and ditch the Mombie habit of staying up late (at least for a little while).
  • Aim for good-enough parenting, rather than striving for perfection.
  • If you're concerned, consult your GP. Your doctor can rule out depression and/or anxiety or help you access appropriate treatment if required.