Parental burnout: 7 warning signs and how to cope

Feeling frustrated, frazzled and fatigued before your day has even begun? You aren’t alone… Learn ways to get a grip.

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When Simon Fernandez* gained full custody of his young kids after the courts deemed his his drug-addict wife an unfit mother, he had to make massive changes to his daily routine.

The single father got up at 4am to get a head start with his office work, woke the kids up a few hours later, got them ready, fed them, then dropped them off at school. He then travelled to work, but left early to send his kids to extra-curricular activities. All this while, Fernandez was on his phone managing his work obligations.

Once home, he prepared dinner, helped the kids with their homework, put the kiddos to bed and finished up his own work before hitting the sack. Fernandez did the same thing the next day, and the next and the next. Upon his supervisor’s advice, who’d noticed he had become highly irritable all the time, the overworked father spoke to a family therapist. Shortly after that, he suffered a stroke.

US-based family therapist Neil D Brown shares this story with SmartParents to throw light on an epidemic many parents are silently suffering from ― parental burnout.

Is parental burnout a real thing?

By now, we already know that parenting can be very stressful. Trying to get your little ones to cooperate, while taking care of their physical, mental and emotional needs, and juggling other roles is not a job for the faint-hearted.

“While most parents accept the hard work that goes along with the role, they gain satisfaction from it, even though it is stressful,” Brown points out. “Parental burnout, however, is a state where the satisfaction goes way down and parenting effectiveness goes down as a result.”

In other words, it’s a stress-related emotional state where parents experience exhaustion and feel futile about their parenting efforts. “So, all those tasks of getting cooperation, soothing feelings, teaching responsibilities and values seem impossible while parents keep putting in more effort just to keep things afloat,” adds Brown.

“Parental burnout is a state where the satisfaction goes way down and parenting effectiveness goes down as a result.”

Is this condition more common today?

Brown, who worked with parents and families for more than 30 years, agrees that parental burnout is more prevalent today than in previous generations. One of the biggest reasons, he says, is the pressure to be the perfect parent. 

“We know more today and so we have higher expectations of ourselves. Our connectivity has increased our knowledge of various conditions our kids have, so we have higher expectations to assess and treat our kids,” Brown explains.

Knowing a lot more about child and adolescent development has allowed us to be more informed and better at parenting. However, Brown warns that the many parenting philosophies that are proliferating can also be confusing and the pressure to be a perfect parent and have perfect kids can be destructive.

Another culprit is technology and social media. Rather than staying connected with each other when at home, electronic communication puts pressure on kids to stay engaged with friends and parents to stay engaged with theirs. Being constantly connected and easily accessible via technology can also keep parents in work mode indefinitely. “This contributes to disengagement in families and makes it harder to connect and feel like a family,” adds Brown.

Mums versus dads – who suffers more burnout?

“In general, mothers tend to prioritise other people’s needs more than dads do,” notes Brown. So, they bring it upon themselves to make their children happier, while keeping the home clean and functional. This can undoubtedly add to their burnout.

Stay-at-home mums also suffer parental burnout differently than working mums. “Stay-at-home mums don’t have the opportunity to feel competent and get support and recognition the way working mums do,” points out Brown. “They can suffer from social isolation or a lack of recognition for what they do.  

Working mothers on the other hand, will experience burnout from not having enough hours in the day to get everything done. “They can feel there just isn’t enough of them to go around. If their job is unrewarding, they can experience burnout in both areas and that could be devastating,” adds Brown.  

*Name has been changed to protect his privacy.