What is ‘parental burnout’ and what can you do about it?

Zofishan Umair

Zofishan Umair

Zofishan is a journalist, humour columnist, and a mum who has survived nappy explosions mid-air. She has over a decade of experience writing for print and online publications and is currently working on her first book.
Updated on Jun 26, 2024 · 11 mins read
What is ‘parental burnout’ and what can you do about it?

Ever felt like parenting should come with its job description—and maybe a coffee on the side? From the day you bring the baby home to the day they leave for college, the days are packed with errands, meal preps, and a long list of tasks to tackle.

Somewhere in between juggling the endless demands of kids, careers, and personal life, we drop a few balls and find ourselves suffering from ‘parental burnout.’ Parenting begins to feel like an Olympic sport rather than part of the daily grind. And we get it: It’s tough when the only break you get is five minutes of peace behind a locked bathroom door.

Despite its challenges, taking time for self-care isn’t just a luxury; it’s a necessity that can recharge your batteries and foster positive family environments, enhancing the well-being of everyone involved.

But let’s be honest, when you’re that busy, who has the time to think about relaxing? And a nap counts as me-time, right?

Well, research shows parents hitting high burnout levels need more than just a nap.

Jane Goodall once said, “One thing I learned from watching chimpanzees with their infants is that having a child should be fun.” So are we parenting wrong?

The bottom line is – parenting should be fun! If it’s not, we’re probably doing something wrong. Let’s look at the signs of parental burnout, strategies that can help ease the load, and where you can find support to make parenting fun again.

The symptoms of parental burnout

If you often find yourself watching the clock until bedtime or daydreaming of a quick grocery run as a mini-break, you might be dealing with ‘parental burnout.’ Symptoms can be physical or emotional exhaustion, or changes in behaviour and cognitive thinking.

Emotional symptoms
Parental burnout often begins with a persistent sense of feeling overwhelmed and chronic stress, leading to emotional exhaustion that impacts both physical and mental health. There’s a strong connection between physical or emotional exhaustion. For those with young children, it manifests as profound physical fatigue from endlessly chasing after energetic toddlers.

Parents of teenagers might experience more of a mental and emotional drain, feeling worn out by the constant negotiation and emotional support required.

  • Seeking solitude: You might notice yourself emotionally distancing from your children, not out of lack of love, but simply to conserve your dwindling energy.
  • Diminished joy: The moments of laughter and pleasure in parenting start to lessen, replaced by a routine that feels more like going through the motions than enjoying the journey.
  • Rising self-doubt: Doubts about your parenting skills may begin to surface, with thoughts like, “Am I really doing a good job?” which is a common aspect of emotional exhaustion.

Cognitive symptoms
Unchecked stress can lead to a mental fog that makes even simple decisions daunting. This cognitive overload often means that routine tasks and decisions, like choosing what to make for dinner or selecting a movie, become unexpectedly challenging.

  • Difficulty focusing: You may find it hard to stay engaged, even with activities you usually enjoy. For instance, your favourite TV shows might fail to capture your attention, leaving you feeling disconnected and frustrated.
  • Memory lapses: Everyday responsibilities, such as remembering to complete household chores or keeping track of appointments, fall by the wayside. These memory slips can add a layer of stress to your daily life.
  • Increased anxiety: Minor issues may begin to seem overwhelming, consuming a disproportionate amount of your thoughts. You might also harbour persistent negative thoughts about your abilities as a parent, questioning your competence and worrying extensively about your performance.

Behavioural symptoms
Chronic stress can subtly infiltrate your daily routines, disrupting normal habits and leading to noticeable behavioral changes indicating the need to prioritize self-care. These disruptions often manifest in several key areas of life:

  • Disrupted sleep patterns: You might find yourself restless, lying awake, utterly exhausted yet unable to drift off to sleep. When sleep does come, it’s often fitful and interrupted, leaving you waking frequently throughout the night. This inconsistent sleep can severely impact your energy levels and mood during the day.
  • Altered eating habits: Irregular eating and nutritional neglect are also signs. You may find yourself skipping meals or eating at irregular times. Alternatively, you could turn to food for comfort, leading to overeating or indulging in unhealthy snacks. In the hustle of managing daily stressors, nutrition takes a backseat, and you may end up consuming whatever is quickest or most comforting in your day-to-day life rather than what is healthiest.
  • Social withdrawal: Parental burnout can also lead to decreased social engagement. The energy required to engage socially may seem too great a burden, prompting you to cancel plans and isolate yourself. Activities that once brought joy, like meeting friends or attending social gatherings, now feel overwhelming due to emotional exhaustion and are often avoided.

Physical symptoms
Physical symptoms of parental burnout are often the most pronounced and easiest to recognize, indicating that your body is reaching its limits under stress:

  • Persistent fatigue: From deep exhaustion to lack of energy. Burnt-out parents may experience a profound sense of weariness, feeling heavy and slow, which makes even simple tasks seem daunting. The constant tiredness also leaves burned-out parents struggling to perform daily activities, significantly reducing their productivity and overall zest for life.
  • Gastrointestinal distress: Stress can manifest physically as nausea or an upset stomach, making it difficult to eat and enjoy meals. You might also notice significant fluctuations in your appetite—some days nothing seems appealing, while other days you might not feel like eating at all.
  • Increased susceptibility to illness: A compromised immune system due to ongoing stress can leave you more vulnerable to infections like the common cold. You may also find that your body takes longer to recover from illnesses, further impacting your health and well-being.

Parental burnout: Physical and mental health challenges

The recent global pandemic, as noted by the World Health Organization, has significantly intensified parental burnout, affecting mental health not just for parents but for parents and children alike.

A revealing study from Ohio State University in May 2022 highlighted this issue vividly. Surveying nearly 1,300 working parents with children under 18, the study found alarming links between parental burnout and several mental health challenges.

Two-thirds of these parents reported feeling burnt out, a condition strongly correlated with increased anxiety, depression, and even higher alcohol consumption among them. Notably, parents with a personal history of anxiety were particularly vulnerable, with three-quarters of them experiencing burnout symptoms. This connection underscores how pre-existing mental health issues can exacerbate the stress and challenges of parenting during such turbulent times.

The study also shed light on how children’s mental health affects parental stress. Parents of children diagnosed with ADHD or anxiety found themselves more likely to suffer from burnout. This was also true for parents who suspected their child might have an undiagnosed mental health condition, adding an extra layer of concern and responsibility that could lead to greater parental stress.

Interestingly, the research noted a difference in burnout rates between mothers and fathers. While “mum burnout” was more prevalent due to traditional caregiving roles—with 68% of female parents reporting burnout—42% of male parents also experienced burnout, indicating that fathers are increasingly sharing in the emotional and practical burdens of parenting.

9 ways to avoid parental burnout

We’re not saying parenting can be made easy with the wave of a wand. (Although how cool would that be!) So yes, parenting is tough and will continue to be. It will stretch you thin and in moments of absolute chaos will force you to go crazy.

However, the good news is that there are effective ways to manage and reduce the risk of burnout. Think of these like the fairy godmother who pops in to save the night!

1. Embrace (and demand) that spa day
Self-care is crucial even more so in parenting.

It might be as simple as enjoying a quiet cup of tea or taking a warm shower while your partner puts the kids to bed.

These moments, though brief, can provide significant relief and rejuvenation. Contrary to popular belief, self-care doesn’t have to be elaborate or expensive. Simple actions like taking deep breaths, enjoying a short walk, or chatting with a friend can significantly impact your well-being, serving as important parenting skills to maintain your well-being.

These small steps help create a pattern of positive behaviour that balances the stresses of parenting.  Remember, it’s not about the duration of self-care but the quality and consistency of these moments.

2. Practice self-compassion
It’s common to experience days of emotional distancing where you feel less connected or drained, impacting your ability to maintain positive interactions.

During these times, practice self-compassion. Be kind to yourself and cut yourself some slack rather than being overly critical. Research shows that parents who treat themselves kindly often enjoy better health and more fulfilling interactions with their children, leading to positive outcomes for the entire family.

3. Seek support
Recognise when you’re overwhelmed and don’t hesitate to ask for help. Whether from a partner, a supportive friend, or an allied health professional like a GP or mental health professional, seeking support is a key life skill and a sign of strength. Support systems, including extended family and mental health professionals, can provide practical and emotional support during challenging times.

4. Flexibility in the workplace
Flexible work arrangements can be a lifeline for working parents, especially single parents. Employers and colleagues should stay alert to signs of job burnout and offer support proactively, helping to create a supportive work environment that acknowledges the broader parenting responsibilities and challenges.

5. Mindfulness
Mindfulness isn’t just a buzzword. It is important to acknowledge it in your routine. This practice isn’t about changing your situation but about becoming aware of the present moment without judgment. Recognising your thoughts and feelings without attaching labels can be incredibly freeing and grounding.

6. Validate all feelings
It’s okay to feel a range of emotions, including anger or sadness. Accepting and acknowledging these feelings without judgment helps you understand they are transient. The feeling will pass and no you do not hate your kids. You do however hate the tantrums that they throw.

It’s okay to feel overwhelmed by the demands of parenting though. Acceptance and validation can help alleviate the pressure.

8. Distance yourself from overthinking
Our brains are wired to anticipate and solve problems, which can lead to negative or unrealistic thoughts. Learn to recognise these thoughts for what they are: not facts but possibilities.

A simple acknowledgment like “thanks for the input, brain” can help create a healthy distance from these thoughts, reducing their impact.

9. Embrace the STOP Method
In the midst of a hectic day, it’s easy to ignore our needs until we reach a breaking point. You can make room for mindful pauses in your routine using the “STOP” method. This simple technique encourages you to:

Stop: Pause whatever you’re doing.

Take a breath: Draw a deep breath, focusing on a prolonged exhale to release tension.

Observe: Engage your senses fully. Feel your feet grounding into the earth, listen to the sounds around you, and notice the sights, smells, and tastes present.

Proceed: With this renewed sense of presence, move forward with intention, deciding the next best step in your day.

This method doesn’t just help in managing stress; it also enhances your interactions with your children by making you more present and responsive.

Sensory modulation techniques

Sensory modulation techniques offer another powerful tool for managing stress and exhaustion without the need for intense cognitive effort. Here are a few methods:

  • Deep pressure: Use weighted blankets, snuggle with a pet, or wrap yourself in a blanket. These actions help reduce stress by lowering your body’s arousal state.
  • Rhythmical movements: Activities like walking, rocking, or yoga utilize big muscle groups and have a calming effect.
  • Mindful of sensations: Pay attention to how your body feels during these activities. This awareness can significantly reduce stress levels.

Incorporating these techniques into your daily life can not only help you manage your own emotions but also assist your children.

Psst: Need a TV show that captures your struggles and you can relate to? Go ahead and pop in an episode of Bluey! You’ll love it!

Wrapping it up

Parental burnout is real. It doesn’t make you a bad parent, partner, or grown-up. It also doesn’t mean that you don’t love your kids more than anything in the world.

It does mean you are so very human, dealing with the highs and lows that make parenting the hardest job out there. We can be obsessed with our little ones and still acknowledge the heaviness that can come with caring for them. Your feelings are valid, but make sure you care for them too.

If you need immediate support, here are some helplines.

Lifeline provides 24-hour crisis counselling, support groups and suicide prevention services. Call 13 11 14, text 0477 13 11 14 or chat online.

Beyond Blue aims to increase awareness of depression and anxiety and reduce stigma. You can call 1300 22 4636, 24 hours/7 days a week or chat online.

PANDA (Perinatal Anxiety & Depression Australia) supports families across Australia affected by anxiety and depression during pregnancy and in the first year of parenthood. Call 1300 726 306

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