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Parental Burnout and Stress

Reviewed by Psychology Today Staff

Raising children can be immensely joyful, but parents must be prepared for feelings of exhaustion or burnout, especially after the birth of a child, and for stress and anxiety as children grow up and resist their guidance or take greater risks. And some couples will face the unthinkable loss of a child, and the struggles to recover.

Dealing with Burnout

Burnout is not only caused by working too hard at one’s job. Parenting and other forms of caregiving frequently lead to exhaustion, stress, and overwhelm that, left unchecked, can bring on the emotional, mental, and physical symptoms of burnout, including feelings of cynicism, lethargy, and, often, depression. Parents, like others who experience burnout, may hide their symptoms, fearing the stigma of being seen as not good enough or strong enough, but without attention and treatment, a mother’s or father’s burnout can have detrimental effects on an entire family.

For more, see Burnout

How common is parental burnout?

In some surveys, as many as 60 percent of parents have reported experiencing feelings if burnout at some time. But many parents resist admitting that they are burned out, and so they do not receive help. People often believe they are expected to be superhuman when it comes to caring for their children, and burnout can make parents feel inadequate.

What are some possible signs of parental burnout?

One of the most concerning symptoms of parental burnout, research finds, is feelings of escape ideation—imaging what it would be like to walk away from family responsibilities altogether. Such feelings, left unaddressed, could spiral into neglectful or abusive parenting or even abandonment. Feeling like being on autopilot, or feeling detached from their children, can leave children feeling unloved.

Coping with a New Arrival
How does the arrival of a child affect a couple’s relationship?

The arrival of a newborn can have a significant impact on a couple’s sex life, because of the time parents need to devote to childcare, and because while new mothers’ desire for sex may decrease during the postpartum months, men may be less affected, leading to large differences in desire, and ensuing conflict. Several large-scale studies have found a general decline in relationship satisfaction after a child’s birth, with women typically reporting a greater drop than men. Intensive couples counseling for new parents has shown some promise in helping couples stay connected, but smaller-scale practices, like brief moments of physical affection like hugs and snuggling, unexpected kind gestures, expressions of gratitude, and going to bed at the same time can all help partners maintain their connection.

How can new mothers protect their mental health?

Experts in managing new mothers’ mental health emphasize that they must prioritize their self-care, including nutrition, exercise, sleep, social support, and time for self. To that end, maintaining hydration, taking regular walks, reducing caffeine, finding alone time, and asking family and friends to help with specific tasks can all benefit their mood and mental health.

Facing Postpartum Depression

As many as 60 percent of new mothers experience feelings of postpartum depression (PPD). These feelings of anxiety, irritability, and confusion, coming at what is supposed to be one of life’s most joyous moments, can be disorienting and unmooring, and lead to crying spells, sleep and appetite problems, and in extreme cases, violent or suicidal thoughts. When such feelings only last for two or three days after the birth of a child—the “baby blues”—they are not generally considered clinically serious, but if feelings endure for two weeks or longer, they should be treated with professional care.

For more, see Postpartum Depression.

What should people understand about postpartum depression?

Postpartum depression is not widely understood by those who have not experienced it. In half of women with postpartum depression, for example, symptoms begin during pregnancy, and in many others, symptoms do not appear for weeks after delivery. Some experts suggest that doctors should consider postpartum depression as a diagnosis anywhere from six months before birth until a year after.

What are the risk factors for postpartum depression?

Any new parent can experience symptoms, but research has identified several potential risk factors for postpartum depression, including marital stress, poor social support, the recent death of a loved one, hormonal imbalance, smoking, and a history of anxiety or depression. Awareness of one’s risk factors, and a willingness to seek help when symptoms occur, can lead to effective treatment and limit the potential effect on child development and family relationships.

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