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Burnout

How to Identify, Prevent, and Fix Parent Burnout

One of the best solutions to burnout is thoughtfully doing less.

Key points

  • When children face challenges, the risk of parental burnout increases dramatically.
  • Address burnout to support the child and the parent over the long term.
  • The systemic issues caregiving parents face likely cause much of this burnout by making money, time, and resources scarce.
Kelly Fradin, MD
Kelly Fradin, MD

Parents, myself included, often feel they need to “do it all” to be good parents. Parents sacrifice a lot of their time and energy to provide for their children. When a child faces a challenge–a diagnosis, a disability, or a mental health struggle–a parent gives even more.

However, when a parent puts themselves last repeatedly, it is neither good for them nor the child. When parents are so spent, they don’t have the energy left to attend to their needs. Who cares for the carer? Parents also need sleep, nutrition, exercise, friends, creative outlets, hobbies, and everything that makes them who they are. Many of these things can be on the back burner for a bit, but when neglected continuously, it puts them at high risk of burning out.

In 2010, a study found nearly 20 percent of parents met the criteria for burnout. This number increases when parents are also caring for children with challenges. Looking specifically at parents of children with Type 1 Diabetes or inflammatory bowel disease, 36 percent reported burnout. We can assume that other challenges also increase the risk of burnout because, in addition to “typical” demands, parents must also tend to their child’s “extra” needs and cope with additional stress.

So what exactly is burnout? Psychological research indicates three main dimensions of burnout: exhaustion, detachment, and a sense of ineffectiveness. Symptoms include:

  • Physical manifestations such as headache, poor sleep, and stomach aches
  • Feeling drained of energy and creativity
  • Unable to cope with minor stressors
  • Cynicism
  • Irritability
  • Feeling worthless
  • Lack of concentration
  • Hopelessness

When a parent experiences burnout symptoms, they can no longer care for their children or themselves optimally. Over time, parents can become fairly neglected, and their health can suffer. To all the parents reading this:

Your needs matter too. Especially basic needs like sleep, exercise, and regular meals. Your children need you to be in the best mental and physical condition you can be in. Many have heard the caregiving analogy that parents need to put on their oxygen masks first before helping others. This applies in airplane emergencies and regular life - sometimes, doing what’s best for your children means doing what’s best for yourself first. This doesn’t make you a selfish or less loving parent. It can make you a better parent.

If you feel burnt out, here are four things that can help.

  1. Set and defend your limits. One essential way to reclaim your time and energy is to set limits. You are allowed to say “No.” Even to your child.
  2. Delegate. It’s impossible to do everything, and asking for help is ok. You can recruit your spouse, friends, family, and anyone willing to help. Sometimes we underestimate how others can step in to help. You might need to invest some time training others initially, but it can save you a lot of time in the long run. Others might not do things the same way or as well as you, but good enough is often adequate.
  3. Find a creative outlet. Creative outlets like dance, art, photography, and music can reduce feelings of burnout and promote feelings of self-efficacy. Engaging in activities that bring you joy can increase positive feelings and crowd out the negative.
  4. Therapy. When stress overwhelms a parent’s capacity to cope, it can lead to clinical depression or anxiety. Some struggling people will need the help of a doctor or mental health provider who can provide therapy, medication or a combination approach. Don’t underestimate the benefit of having an expert on mental health support give you tailored advice, direct you toward specific local resources, and monitor your response to treatment over time.

Parental burnout is a systemic problem. Our society greatly undervalues parents' work and doesn’t provide enough support. Parents are expected to handle everything on their own without outside help. Many don’t have paid parental leave, and childcare is not guaranteed like in other countries. However, if you feel burnt out, know it’s possible to work your way out of it. Having limits, delegating, and prioritizing yourself are all things you can start doing today to help you feel better. Over time, a few small changes can lead to great relief.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

References

Lindström C, Aman J, Norberg AL. Increased prevalence of burnout symptoms in parents of chronically ill children. Acta Paediatr. 2010 Mar;99(3):427-32. Doi: 10.1111/j.1651-2227.2009.01586.x. Epub 2009 Nov 12. PMID: 19912139.

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