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The "Third Shift" is Burning Out Parents Amid the Pandemic

Parents are more exhausted than ever. What helps?

Many parents were feeling stressed and tired before the pandemic even began. Research suggests that parents normally experience exhaustion from the “continuous and intense nature of childrearing” (Margolis & Myrskyla, 2015). In 2017, researchers found that parenting burnout rates were between 2 and 12 percent.

With many schools, camps, and daycares shut down, parenting stress and burnout are now at an all-time high. These are compounded by job losses, financial issues, infection anxiety, working while helping with virtual learning, worries about loved ones, decision stress, juggling roles, and sadness about the loss of "normal" life.

The average workday increased by three hours in the U.S. after mid-March, when companies started practicing working from home due to COVID-19. Many parents are shifting their job-related work to early morning and late-night hours (a.k.a., the "third shift") as they care for their children and help them with virtual learning during the day.

Parents are suffering

The frequency of daily negative moods among both parents and children increased significantly during pandemic-related lockdowns (Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy). The Pew Research Center found that 33% of Americans have experienced high levels of psychological distress at some point during COVID-19. Families with younger children report poorer mental and behavioral health than those with older children (Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy).

Burnout can lead to negative parenting

Burnout involves mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion. It refers to not being able to offer any more of oneself on an emotional level. Research suggests there is a significant association with (and overlap between) burnout and depression. Both are associated with the increased recall of negative words and the decreased recall of positive words. Depression is associated with more hostile, negative parenting, withdrawn parenting, and less positive parenting (warmth). Parental burnout is associated with neglectful and even violent behaviors toward one's children.

If parents are burned out or depressed, it's harder for them to be sensitive to their kids' needs and to bring positivity, peace, and joy to their caregiving. Sensitive caregiving in the first 3 years of life has been found to predict an individual’s social competence and academic achievement from childhood all the way through to adulthood (Science Daily, 2014). Parental burnout may be widespread during the pandemic, but it has the potential to seriously harm kids' development.

While some parts of burnout (e.g. financial stress) may be difficult or impossible to change, researchers have found that some personal traits, patterns, and actions can be adjusted to alleviate burnout.

Here are some steps parents can take:

1. Ease up on perfectionism.

Surprisingly, parents who "give it their all" and are committed to parenting the most are more at risk of burning out. Researchers found that parenting burnout is related to the combination of self-oriented perfectionism (high expectations for what they think they should be doing as parents) and socially prescribed perfectionism (parents' perceptions of others' expectations for or judgments of them). Adjust your expectations. As Emily W. King, Ph.D. writes, "This is 2020. Have 2020 goals. Safety. Connection. Mental Wellness. Physical health. Maintain Relationships."

2. Set up consistent routines.

Researchers found that inconsistent parenting or a high level of family disorganization are risk factors for parental burnout. Routines can be stability anchors and can lower stress. Consistent family routines such as family dinner together each night, set times to play and turn off devices, set outdoor times, Sunday game nights, Friday movie nights, and chore charts can reduce your risk of burnout.

3. Get support.

Consider joining a parents' group, support group, or other group where you're able to connect with others experiencing the same things. Brianda and colleagues (2020) found that sharing in a group (participant sharing and active listening) helped reduce rates of parental burnout. Tele (video) therapy, which research suggests is effective for depression, anxiety, and other issues can also help.

4. Simplify.

Parents who are "overzealous" about parenting are also more at risk for burnout. Overzealous parents often want to plan the best outings, do the best crafts, have the best toys, and, overall, do too much. Not only can this superhero parenting be detrimental for children's mental health, but it also puts more stress on parents too. Simplify. Consider cutting out activities, toys, outings, crafts, stuff, and projects to free up time for you and your child to relax, do nothing, and play.

5. Address discrepancy between demands and resources, if possible.

Research illustrates that targeting the hypothesized cause of parenting burnout (e.g. discrepancy between demands and resources) reduces parental burnout as well. Can you or your partner reduce work hours? Make a change to your work schedule? Get a babysitter or a family member to help out? Cut back on commitments, just for a while?

6. Engage in self-care.

Do something that "fills your cup" every week, whether it's biking, walking, chatting with friends, gardening, golfing, baking, watching a favorite movie, or pursuing a hobby. Consider 1) taking a bath, which can improve symptoms of depression; 2) exercising, which reduces symptoms of depression and anxiety; or 3) reading a book, which reduces psychological distress.

7. Focus on the joy in the day.

Know where your joy will come from each day. Maybe it will be from the 10 minutes you play catch with your child, from reading your children bedtime stories, from chatting with an old friend, from winding down with a feel-good movie, from giving an employee a good review, or from surprising a loved one with flowers. Broaden and Build theory, developed by Barbara Fredrickson, recommends "drawing explicit attention to the positive" because doing so helps you discard automatic responses, look for creative new ways of thinking, and be more receptive to positive experiences, all of which improve your well-being.

Copyright 2020.

Parts of this blog post have been excerpted from the book, Joy Fixes for Weary Parents: 101 Quick, Research-Based Ideas for Overcoming Stress and Building a Life You Love by Erin Leyba, L.C.S.W., Ph.D.

More from Erin Leyba LCSW, Ph.D.
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