- Parental burnout occurs when parents face parenting stressors without the resources needed to handle them.
- Parental burnout is associated with exhaustion, emotional distancing, and loss of fulfillment in parenting.
- Parental burnout is linked to poor mental health outcomes for both children and parents.
Burnout is a syndrome characterized by mental and physical exhaustion, depersonalization, and a decreased sense of fulfillment and self-efficacy. It tends to result from chronic exposure to emotionally draining environments. While not a formal clinical diagnosis, burnout has been recognized by the World Health Organization as “an occupational condition...resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed."
Traditionally, burnout has been most associated with the workplace, particularly the helping professions (physicians, social workers) and high-pressure work environments (law, finance). The Covid-19 pandemic, however, brought renewed attention to the less well-studied phenomenon of parental burnout, which occurswhen parents "chronically face parenting stressors without the resources needed to handle them.” Indeed, the pandemic resulted in increased parental stress and isolation, particularly for parents who had to keep working during that time. Daycare services closed, and grandparents, who serve as parental support for many families, were suddenly unavailable, leaving parents under increased parenting burden while decreasing their access to coping resources, Consequentially, research found that over 60% of parents experienced some level of burnout during the pandemic.
Even before the pandemic, contemporary parenting has become a strained and contradictory undertaking. On one hand, our culture lauds parents as role models, children as precious, family values as cherished, and parent-child relationships as foundational. On the other, our culture does not offer much support for parents, while demanding a lot from them.
For one, non-parental childcare, an essential resource for working parents, is expensive, low quality, and often unavailable. Moreover, in a culture that weighs everything by money, parenting is quite a raw deal: It’s long, hard work that takes a lot of your time and siphons a lot of your money. Additionally, the tasks that constitute the role are often rote, frustrating, and lonely. And while few people openly regret having children, few report being happier on account of becoming parents. Further, like so many other things in the US, parenting has become highly competitive, a test of one's dedication and competence and a way to gratify oneself—and signal one's worth—vicariously through one's children. Alas, when parents feel social pressure to prove their worth by raising perfect children, they tend to become more anxious and controlling. Parental anxietytends to affect children adversely, as does controlling parenting, which has been linked in research to child maladjustment. Facing high expectations and inadequate support, it's no wonder that, even in non-pandemic times, stress and exhaustion levels can escalate to the level of burnout for as many as 20% of parents, and the rates are higher for parents of children with chronic illnesses.
Mentions of parental burnout in the science literature go back to the late 70s, with early research focusing on parents of autistic children. Parental burnout research has since identified several core features that tend to progress in order. First is exhaustion, both physical and emotional, as the daily grind of parenting wears down parents. Emotional distancing tends to emerge next, followed by a loss of fulfillment and pleasure in parenting, and with that a sense of guilt, shame, and self-discrepancy (distress over failing to be the parent one wanted to be).
Parental burnout varies by parental circumstances, but also by culture. Generally, western, individualistic cultures are more vulnerable to experiencing it than parents in collectivist cultures. A recent (2023) meta-analysis of the parenting burnout literature by Belgian researcher Moïra Mikolajczak and colleagues found that contrary to expectation, the number and ages of children are not strong predictors of PB. Neither is being in a blended family, or a single parent (particularly if single parenthood is chosen).
The best predictors identified in the literature involve family disorganization, low emotional intelligence and lack of social support, social pressures toward perfection, co-parenting disagreement, and work-family conflict. Unemployment, financial insecurity, and a lack of leisure time have all been associated with an increased risk for parental burnout. Predictors, however, may differ by culture. “For instance, single parenthood is a vulnerability factor in Iran, a neutral factor in Belgium, and a slightly protective factor in France."
Finnish researchers Matilda Sorkkila and Kaisa Aunola (2020) found that a strong risk factor for burning out was “socially prescribed perfectionism,” and its effects were exacerbated in parents who also reported a high level of self-oriented perfectionism. The authors also found a gender effect: “The relationship between gender and parental burnout was mediated via perfectionism: mothers reported more socially prescribed and self-oriented perfectionism than fathers and, consequently, were also more burned out as parents.”
Personality matters as well, on both sides of the equation. French psychologists Sarah Le Vigouroux and Celine Scola (2018) found that “Parental meticulousness and lack of emotional control were both risk factors for developing parental burnout. By contrast, agreeableness and perseverance were protective factors.” Moreover, “having children they perceived as having a high level of neuroticismreduced parents’ sense of parental accomplishment and increased their emotional exhaustion and distancing. The opposite relationships were found for agreeableness and conscientiousness.”
Likewise, recent (2023) research by Polish psychologist Konrad Piotrowski and colleagues found that personality traits associated with resilience, namely low neuroticism and high conscientiousness, agreeableness, and extraversion, are linked, unsurprisingly, to a lower incidence of parental burnout. They found that the effects of personality on burnout are more pronounced early, before children reach school age.
What are the consequences of PB? The meta-analysis authors list several consequences, including undermined mental and physical health of the parents, increases feelings of guilt, as well as escape and suicidal ideations. Life satisfaction and well-being also appear to decrease. Research has also documented a link between PB and increased cortisol (i.e., stress hormone) levels, and with that, increased somatic complaints. Moreover, increased parental stress, coupled with emotional distancing, has consequences for children as well, in part through increased parental anger, neglect, and even violence.
What can be done to treat PB? The researchers note that “Despite the dramatic consequences of PB, the literature is extremely scarce on treatments.” They cite one recent study showing that short-term group interventions to either directly address the defining features of PB or offer a setting in which people are heard and understood without judgment were both effective in significantly reducing behavioral and emotional symptoms, as well as cortisol levels in parents.
Yet, targeted treatment protocols and effectiveness data are lacking in this area. Moreover, the authors found no studies of prevention, which, they note, is a shame “given that it is only in the second phase of PB, i.e., emotional distancing, that its most deleterious consequences peak.”
Finnish researcher Kaisa Aunola and colleagues recently (2021) developed a brief measure of parental burnout that may help prevention efforts by identifying exhausted parents and intervening before they are fully burnt out, thus sparing them and their children the worst consequences of the condition. Recent workhas suggested that treatments targeting parental conflict may help, since co-parenting disagreements are strong predictors of burnout. A cognitive reappraisal intervention targeting co-parenting cognitions has also shown promise. Research has also found that teaching parents "informal mindfulnesspractices" aiming to enhance the awareness of the present moment using the five senses and awareness of body sensations may help reduce the risk of burnout.
In sum, parental burnout is a common—and commonly overlooked—condition that carries adverse consequences for both parents and their children. Clearly, more data are urgently needed about how to measure, prevent, and treat it effectively.