Coping with Parental Stress and Burnout

If you have children, you know just how exhausting caregiving can be. You’re constantly thinking about your children’s needs, whether it’s school, therapy, medical issues, or just their general growth and development. You may feel like you’re always “on call,” morning and night.

This mental and physical load is a lot to manage, and it can be stressful. As a result, some parents and caregivers may experience burnout. 

There is no shame in feeling burned out. Whether you have one child or three, work outside the home or not–even the most loving caregivers can experience burnout. But the truth is that a well-rested and attentive parent is the best thing for any child. If you’re feeling burned out, there are steps you can take to lighten your days.

What is parental burnout?

Parental burnout is the exhaustion caused by the many stressors of parenting. This exhaustion can be mental and physical, and it can make some caregivers begin to shut down. Parents who are burned out may feel overwhelmed, sad, and disconnected from others.

Symptoms of parental burnout

There are three types of parental burnout:

1 Exhaustion

You constantly feel tired. You may not be getting enough sleep or have problems sleeping. You may feel like you’re simply surviving from day to day. These are all symptoms of exhaustion.

2 Emotional distance

Feeling emotionally distant, or detached, is another type of burnout. Some caregivers may feel disconnected from their kids. They may not find pleasure in activities that they used to enjoy.

3 Inadequacy

Feelings of ineffectiveness may also be present for those with parental burnout. You may feel inadequate or like you can’t parent well.

Other signs of parental burnout include:

  • Hopelessness

  • Irritability

  • Feeling lonely, or isolating yourself

  • Headaches, neck pain, or muscle aches

Is burnout the same as depression?

You may be thinking that all these symptoms sound like depression. But burnout is different from depression. Burnout is temporary. If a burned-out parent or caregiver can step away from the situation that’s causing them stress and do something to relax, they should begin to feel better. 

What causes parental burnout?

Burnout has become more common in caregivers since the COVID-19 pandemic. There has also been an uptick in depression and anxiety among caregivers. For example, a 2021 study found that 34% of parents reported elevated anxiety symptoms, and about 28% of them reported depression symptoms. A 2022 study found that “parents have experienced symptoms of deteriorated mental health due to the COVID-19 pandemic, including parental stress, anxiety, and depression.”

People who have a hard time handling frustration or managing their emotions may be at greater risk for burnout, as well.

Why is it important to manage parental burnout?

It’s important to identify and combat burnout in families as quickly as possible. Not only does this matter for parents’ own health and happiness, but it also matters for their children. Kids need caregivers who are engaged, loving, and sensitive to their needs. If a parent is only “surviving,” it can be challenging for them to meet their child’s emotional needs. Children who have disconnected parents may be at higher risk for attachment issues and emotional problems as they get older.

4 ways to cope with parental burnout

Fortunately, there are things you can do to fight parental burnout. While you may feel too overwhelmed to try some of these tips, you are worth the effort! Even small steps, like going to bed 15 minutes early, can set you on the path to lighter days.

1 Ask for help

It may be hard to accept that you need help getting it all done. But asking for help does not make you a lesser parent.

Think about who in your life you could talk to for assistance. Maybe it’s a partner, family members, or friends. Think, too, about specific kinds of help that would make a difference. Maybe they can help clean, get your children to or from school, participate in a carpool, help your child with their homework, or take the kids for a while to allow you some alone time. 

2 Prioritize your own needs

Parents are often rewarded for putting their kids' needs above their own. But your needs matter, too. Taking care of yourself leads to being a happier, more attentive parent.

Can you find a babysitter and step out of the house with friends? Or hire what used to be called a “mother’s helper”--a preteen who can play with your children while you focus on something else? You can look for other ways to carve out alone time, such as waking up a little earlier to read with a cup of coffee. The bottom line is, when your needs are met, you can be the best caregiver possible for your children. 

3 Make time for your physical health

If you’re experiencing changes in your appetite or sleep because of burnout, this might be hard to do. But taking care of yourself physically is important. Try to get enough sleep, stay active, and eat well. It’s hard to have energy throughout the day if these needs aren’t met. And when you feel better physically, you’ll feel better mentally.

Making small changes is a great way to start. Maybe you can go to bed 15 or 30 minutes earlier, get outside to walk the dog, or eat a healthier afternoon snack. But if you still don’t feel well physically, or your sleep problems persist, it’s a good idea to reach out to your health care provider. 

4 Talk to someone

People experiencing burnout should talk to someone supportive. This might be a friend, partner, family member, or another parent or caregiver. It may also help to talk with a licensed therapist. You’ll feel less lonely when you talk things through, and a therapist or loved one may have practical ideas for ways to feel better. 

Are you experiencing parental burnout?

If you or someone you love is feeling burned out, the first step is realizing what’s happening. You need to identify the burnout in order to take steps to manage it.

You are not alone. Between work, chores, appointments, and the mental load of caregiving, it’s not always an easy job. But when you feel overwhelmed, try to remember the importance of keeping a positive, healthy relationship with your child. Don’t be afraid to reach out for support from people who are in your corner. We aren’t meant to parent alone–we’re meant to help each other. So find those who are in your corner and ask them for help. If they’re a caregiver, you might find that they could use your support as well.

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