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Maxed Out Parents: 5 Strategies to Ease Burnout

Tips to help manage parenting stress.

Katrina Alcorn recently published a memoir about her struggle with work-life balance as a working mom, and her subsequent burnout. As a non-mom, I learned a great deal from Ms. Alcorn’s story about the rigors of trying to work and raise children, and as a former burnout sufferer, I wanted to outline strategies to help parents better cope with stress and prevent burnout.

Six specific sources of burnout have been identified, and to date, much of the research about these sources has been related to work; however, I am surprised at how well they translate to non-work and specifically, to parenting. The six sources are as follows:

Lack of control: Your sense of control over what you do in undermined or limited, and you don’t have a lot of say in what’s going on.

Values conflict: There is a disconnect between your core values and the core values of “it” (“it” is work, according to the research, but could also be something bigger, like society or culture).

Insufficient reward: You feel taken for granted, not recognized and/or undercompensated (I think this describes most mom’s I’ve ever met).

Work overload: Work is too much, too complex, or too urgent.

Unfairness: You or others are treated unfairly, there is a culture of favoritism and assignments and promotions are made in an arbitrary fashion and discussed behind closed doors.

Breakdown of connection/community: You have to work with patronizing colleagues, there is no mechanism for conflict resolution, and feedback is non-existent.

The three big warning signs of burnout are:

** Feeling overly cynical, frustrated or even resentful

** Exhaustion to the point of withdrawal or emotional detachment from your kids

** Feeling ineffective and as though nothing you do is good enough

Here are five strategies to help you better manage the stress that comes with being a parent and prevent burnout:

Replace perfection with “good enough.” It took me years to realize how destructive the pursuit of perfection really is because for most perfectionists, perfection isn’t about striving for excellence but rather, it’s about fear of failure. Every single parent I know wants to do their best and not fail at what they consider to be the most important job on the planet, but perfection has a cost. According to research professor, Dr. Brene Brown, “Perfection is correlated with depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis or missed opportunities. The fear of failing, making mistakes, not meeting people’s expectations, and being criticized keeps us outside of the arena where healthy competition and striving unfolds” (Brown, 2012).

Have a vulnerability outlet. When my brother and I were younger, my mom used to get together with other moms and play bridge. This was really code for “let’s talk about our kids.” Parents deal with new situations regularly, and having resources to call and ask, “Is this normal?” is invaluable (and necessary to preserve sanity!) This “vulnerability outlet” lets you drop your guard and confront the fears you might have about failing as a parent, while being reassured that parenting is messy business for everyone.

Focus on what goes right. Human beings are wired to seek out, notice and remember the bad stuff that goes on each day – it’s called the negativity bias. In order to counteract it, spend time each week writing down what has gone right along with a sentence about why that good thing happened and/or what it means to you. This simple exercise helps to generate positive emotions, which increase your resilience, lower stress hormones, and are contagious (Fredrickson, 2009). Your kids will “catch” your joy in the same way they would catch a cold.

Leverage hope. The three components of hope include having goals, feeling empowered to shape your daily life, and identifying multiple avenues for making your goals happen. In one study, hope proved to be a strong predictor of satisfaction, leading the study’s authors to suggest that hope is a symptom of happiness (Gallagher & Lopez, 2009). In addition, when it comes to children and how well they follow doctor’s orders, a child’s level of hope is a significant predictor of those who actually follow what the doctor says (Berg et. al, 2007). What do you hope for your family, and what goals do you have in place to get you there?

Build your mental toughness. Optimistic thinkers think in a very specific way when setbacks happen. Specifically, they are solution-oriented and see quickly where they have control, influence, or leverage, they know that the adversity won’t last forever (this too shall pass), and they compartmentalize well so that the stressor doesn’t impact other areas of their life (Seligman, 2006). More importantly, optimistic thinkers are healthier (Cohen et al., 2003), happier, and less depressed (Abramson, 2000) than their pessimistic thinking counterparts. Optimistic thinking is one of over a dozen simple skills that have proven to be effective in building personal resilience and mental toughness.

Rather than leave you with my own parting words, I want to share with you one of my favorite posts about motherhood, from one of my favorite writers, Anna Quindlen, who is a mother of three. If you’re having a bad day, it will make you smile, and on many days, that’s all you need.


Abramson, L.Y., et al. (2000). Optimistic cognitive styles and invulnerability to depression. In The Science of Optimism and Hope (Jane E. Gillham, Ed.), pp. 75-98. Radnor, PA: Templeton Foundation Press.

Berg, C.J., Rapoff, M., Snyder, C.J., & Belmont, J.M. (2007). The relationship of children’s hope to pediatric asthma treatment adherence. Journal of Positive Psychology, 2, 176-184.

Brown, B. (2012). Daring greatly. New York: Gotham Books.

Cohen, S. et al. (2003). Emotional style and susceptibility to the common cold. Psychosomatic Medicine, 65, 652-657.

Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity. New York: Crown Publishers.

Gallagher, M.W., & Lopez, S.J. (2009). Positive expectancies and mental health: Identifying the unique contributions of hope and optimism. Journal of Positive Psychology 4, 548-556.

Leiter, M.P., & Maslach, C. (2005). Banishing burnout. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Seligman, M.E.P. (2006). Learned optimism: How to change your mind and your life. New York: Random House.

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