parenting, burnout, stress, exhaustion

Parental Burnout May Be at the Root of Your Struggles Right Now – Part 1

You’re not imagining it.  Parental burnout is worse than ever these days.  It’s that feeling like you just can’t keep it all together, let alone get one step ahead of the chaos.  It’s that sense that you’re juggling a set of plates while walking a tightrope as someone keeps lobbing water balloons at you.  And it may explain why you utterly exhausted and you find yourself snapping at the slightest annoyance.

Parents were teetering on the edge of burnout before the COVID-19 pandemic radically altered our worlds.  Prior to the pandemic stressors, parents already were often pushing themselves to anticipate and meet every need of their children and families. There was a cultural pressure to give kids every opportunity available, to cook healthy meals around the clock, to keep homes in top shape, to constantly engage and teach your children. Parents were already drowning from the expectation to be perfect.  And many families were already struggling with lack of resources, children with special needs, and other stressors that lowered th1eir threshold for coping with additional stress.

Then the initial COVID-19 pandemic lockdown changed everything.  Parents were expected to suddenly navigate both the pandemic altered work demands while also becoming teachers and technical support for kids in online school.  Parents hustled to figure out childcare all while carrying the worries that every cough or sniffle was a sign of crisis.  The chronic stress left parents on the edge of losing their cool at any moment.

There was hope of reprieve from this exhaustion once vaccines became available and the country opened up its doors.  These days kids have largely returned to the classrooms, youth sports resumed, and families have moved into full gear again.  Yet there wasn’t even a moment to process the initial effects of all the initial pandemic stress before the Delta variant layered new worries.  Parents worry about their kids becoming sick or quarantined, schools closing again, managing social events, and the toll this all takes on their children’s emotional wellbeing. 

Parents everywhere are struggling to find a breath of space to take care of themselves.  The American Psychological Association has recognized the growing need to understand and address parental burnout.  The demands on parents continue to pile up as the resources to support them diminish.  This is resulting in serious emotional, physical, and social consequences. 

Signs of Burnout

Mental Exhaustion Headaches
Physical Exhaustion Hopelessness
Emotional Exhaustion Memory Problems
Irritability Sleep Problems
Poor Job Performance Substance Use Issues
Body Aches Weight Gain
Anxiety Relationship Conflicts

The signs and symptoms of burnout heavily overlap with depression.  The difference is that the symptoms of burnout typically disappear when you get a prolonged break from your stressor.  Burnout was traditionally understood as a risk for people in high stress jobs such as like healthcare workers, teachers, lawyers, or business owners.  When people experiencing occupational burnout were able to get an extended vacation from work or dramatically alter work stressors, the symptoms of burnout would naturally resolve.  But burnout is being recognized as a chronic concern among parents, a job that never gets a real vacation.  Parents never get to fully unburden themselves from the responsibilities of parenting.

Consequences of Burnout

Parental burnout has consequences for the individual and the entire family.  Burnout has strong associations with stress related health problems.  Our bodies were not built to be in a state of chronic stress.  We find ourselves struggling with body aches, sleeplessness, and stomach distress.  And many parents feel too busy to find time for doctor’s visits let alone trips to the gym.  Over time, this can lead to heart disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, sexual dysfunction, and substance abuse. 

The mental struggle to juggle it all often leads to poor focus and performance at work.  As many parents still work from home, the work stress and family stress often overlap and exacerbate one another.  Parents never get a break from either role.  They end up feeling like failures in all aspects of their lives. 

Relationships suffer when we are burned out.  We are simply too stressed and exhausted to be good partners.  We have no resources left to be attentive, affectionate, appreciative.  This results in more conflict and arguments in families.  Couples may become distant and disconnected.  They treat one another like business partners rather than friends and intimate companions.  Everyone feels lonely.

This all affects the children as well.  Children feel the tension of the household and may respond by becoming emotionally volatile and acting out more.  When parents are overwhelmed, they have few resources to deal with these additional parenting challenges. They become irritable and prone to yelling at their children or disciplining in ways they wouldn’t consider when rested and calm.  Children must recover from these regrettable incidents.  But parents too find themselves wracked with guilt, staying up late replaying the episodes so they wake with less rest and greater stress. 

A Path Forward

If you recognize yourself or your partner as struggling with parental burnout, you’re not alone and you’re not a failure.  Recognizing the impact of parental burnout is an essential first step in making the changes required to rebalance your stresses and resources. In Part 2 of this blog series, we will identify steps you can begin taking to manage your burnout and create a lifestyle that allows you to replenish your energy regularly. 

It is important to note that burnout can also lead to depression or anxiety disorders. If you feel like you’ve lost capacity for joy, experience daily anxiety that interferes with your functioning, or have a sense of hopelessness, it’s important to seek professional help from a licensed therapist or physician.  Treating depression and anxiety early improves the outcome and reduces the suffering. 

Written by Suzanne J. Smith, Ph.D. for Lakefront Psychology Blog. If you are interested in more original articles about mental health, wellness, perinatal mood, relationships, or parenting, please subscribe to the blog using the button below.  If you are interested in scheduling a consultation for an appointment with Dr. Smith, please email or use the contact form. 

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