New research demonstrates parental burnout has serious consequences.

Parents Admitting to Burnout: That’s New

New research published in Clinical Psychological Science suggests that parental burnout can have serious consequences. In two longitudinal studies, 918 and 822 participants were analyzed, respectively. The studies involved the completion of three online surveys per year.

Results indicated that parental burnout has much more severe implications than were previously thought. Burnout was associated with escape ideation—the fantasy of simply leaving parenting and all its stressors—as well as with neglectful behavior and a “violence” category that included verbal and psychological aggression (e.g., threats or insults) and physical aggression (spanking or slapping) directed at children.

The truly remarkable result of this study is that parents responded honestly at all. In earlier research on this topic, the researchers grappled with whether parents would ever respond honestly to questions related to burnout, and whether the construct has any validity if no one will admit to it. It’s human nature to avoid responding honestly to questions that make you look bad, even anonymously! We call this the impression management bias.

What is Burnout?

As defined by the study, burnout is an exhaustion syndrome, characterized by feeling overwhelmed, physical and emotional exhaustion, emotional distancing from one’s children, and a sense of being an ineffective parent. Freudenberger (1974) first coined the term in reference to staff workers. Proccacini and Kiefaver wrote about it in 1984, and then the concept kind of disappeared. Until recently, however, parental burnout hasn’t been systematically studied. I think that’s because the entire concept is taboo.

The thing is, parents aren’t supposed to be able to burn out! We are taught, both explicitly and implicitly, that parenting is so rewarding, fulfilling and wonderful that one smile from a beloved child will instantly fulfill a parent, that the task is so joyful that the occasional difficulties (Meltdowns! Dirty diapers. 2 AM wakeup calls. Dirty diapers at 2AM!) are barely noticed. That’s just plain untrue, and it’s a myth that can harm parents.

Imagine working for this kind of boss: The demands seem to exceed the capacity to satisfy them, and the standard for success is always shifting, with high stakes and a lot of emotional pressure, and no real standard for success. Tasks with no end-date, where the finish line is always shifting, and tasks you can’t escape – those are the perfect conditions for burnout. Teachers experience it. Entrepreneurs experience it. And parents definitely experience it, but they haven’t been able to talk about it.

Oh sure, parents can talk about how work-life balance burns them out, we can talk about the gender gap regarding the mental load of running a home and parenting kids, we can talk about how being a working parent is stressful. But until recently, we haven’t been able to talk about how parenting itself can burn the parent out.

It’s not accidental that burnout makes us think of a depleted battery. When we’ve burned through all of our emotional fuel, there’s no more left. We all know the “supposed to-s” and the “should-s”. Parents are “supposed to” love the act of parenting so much, it recharges them on its own. Parents “shouldn’t” mind being woken up at 2AM, coming late to work, being passed over for promotion because of split priorities, or being the target of teenage angst.

You Can’t Give What You Don’t Have:

It’s true. Our kids rely on us and are frequently helpless. The parenting relationship is crucial to children’s psychological development. Attachment, or the lack thereof, can be damaging. That’s why it’s so threatening to even consider the possibility that parents can burn out. But if we can’t think about it, we can’t do anything to address it.

The thing is, we can’t give what we don’t have. If we’re disconnected from ourselves, we can’t give attachment, love, and nurturing. If we’re under stress, we can’t always respond with patience and model compassionate caring in the face of challenges. Since we are the parents, it’s up to us to know when that’s happening, when burnout is reaching critical levels, and what to do about it.

Neurodiverse Children and Burnout:

The problem is particularly severe when parenting a challenging child. In my practice, I treat parents and families of children with psychological diagnoses. When you’re parenting a child whose presenting problem is anxietyOCDADHDdepression or an Autism Spectrum Disorder, the potential for burnout is so much higher. (For more on parenting a neurodiverse child, click here.)

The world misunderstands challenging children, and it’s up to us to explain them to everyone. Simple tasks, like getting our kids on the school-bus, to brush their teeth, or to eat dinner become massive jobs requiring Herculean effort. Homework time with kids isn’t anyone’s idea of a good time. Try doing homework with a child who erases every letter that isn’t shaped perfectly, or who can’t stick to a task for more than three minutes straight. Then multiply a few siblings, who just have the neurotypical struggles and life demands. Add in some soccer practice, maybe a boss asking for some at-home work and throw in a toothache for good measure. For some people, this would be a nightmare. For others, it’s just called “Tuesday.”

Self-Care IS Child Care:

So many times, when I’m teaching parenting classes, I ask the participants what their self-care was that week. I get responses like this:

Self-care? Who has time for that? I am so consumed dealing with my son. Besides, he needs so much. How can I justify taking time away from something he needs, just to pursue something I like?

Based on this research, I ask parents how often they have escape fantasies, and all agree that they fantasize about their parenting load being lightened. Because this is an interactive class, we’ve already all spoken about the times that stress has led to less-than-optimal parenting strategies, like yelling, or a harsh consequence. (To learn about strategies to predict child behavior, click here. To learn more about using science to inform parenting, click here. To learn more about effective parenting strategies, click here.)

I point to the cell phones recharging on my power bank.

Every parent in this room has a cell phone currently recharging on that power bank. Just like we all know that the cell phones need to be recharged, so do we. When our batteries deplete, we have to refill them. 

 Jrg Schiemann/123RF
We have to recharge our own batteries, before our kids can recharge from us!
Source: Jrg Schiemann/123RF

Personally, I ask myself each week about certain “banks” that need to be filled. Before others can recharge from me, I need to fill up my banks.

I tell my own children when my “cuddle bank” is empty, and I want them to come to me to help refill theirs. I have a “play” bank, a “nurturing food” bank, and “engaging/interesting pursuits” bank, a “sleep” bank, and an “unscheduled time” bank. When one of these banks is running low, I’ve learned to refill it. Let’s not call that self-care. Let’s call that the highest form of child-care – being present. Ironically, it’s that sense of a present parent, that connection, and that attachment, that is associated with the healthiest outcomes. The scariest finding in the research above – burnout prevents parents from being emotionally present with their children. (To learn more about being present and using mindfulness in parenting, click here.)

In 1953, child psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott spoke about being a “good enough” mother. Ironically, in the pursuit of being a “perfect” parent, we tend to burn ourselves out. Social media, with all the images of bento box lunches, Pintrest boards of “fun” braided hairstyles, and moms who brew their own homemade keffir don’t help. Let’s not be “perfect,” or even “great.” Let’s serve peanut butter and jelly for dinner, but have the energy for a cuddle! Let’s be real, because we can burn ourselves out on the path to ideal.

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