Parental Burnout: What Makes It Different
New research distinguishes parental burnout from job burnout and depression.
Posted July 9, 2020 | Reviewed by Matt Huston
Parental burnout is emerging from the shadows as a distinct entity. Parenting educators and other clinical experts have long understood the clinical utility of the construct, but it remains controversial. New research, published in Clinical Psychological Science, seeks to help resolve this debate. Two related studies, with 3,482 participants all together, were conducted to see if the construct of parental burnout is distinct from job burnout, and whether it is also distinct from clinical depression. The analyses demonstrated clear differences between the three constructs, as well as some implications for etiology.
It’s not that I’m stressed out. It’s like I’ve progressed beyond stressed to numb. Managing my kids and their endless needs seems impossible. I’m always messing up. ... People say, 'It must be so hard to leave your kids to go to work,' and I can’t tell them my dirty little secret—I look forward to work. There, I feel successful. There, I know what to do, I do it, and everyone is happy with my work. I’m calm and focused at work. I have that energy that comes from accomplishment, you know? Parenting just isn’t like that.
—Ana, parenting class participant
Burnout by Any Other Name:
Is parental burnout the same as occupational burnout? Are they just depression by another name? When reading this study, I immediately thought of Ana’s statement after a parenting class. Clearly, Ana is not suffering from a global sense of burnout. She is burned out by parenting, but not by her job. In fact, her job is the only thing affording her satisfaction and efficacy right now.
The fact that she experiences pleasure at work, takes an interest in work, and presumably is energetic and motivated there suggests that Ana is not clinically depressed. Depression is considered a context-free construct. It’s not something that comes and goes, it’s global. It pervades most areas of life. People experiencing clinical depression tend to be exhausted. They can’t sleep, they are distracted and ineffective at work. They feel a sense of heaviness or slowness that may ebb and flow throughout the day but isn’t demarcated by work vs. home hours.
Ana is experiencing something distinct from occupational burnout and depression. She’s experiencing parental burnout. It’s a poorly understood condition that isn’t on the radar of most mental health professionals, much less medical doctors. If Ana reaches out to her physician, or her local therapist, she’s more likely to be diagnosed with depression than parental burnout. That’s a problem because treatment for clinical depression may not be effective for parental burnout.
The current study used factor analysis to tease out whether parental burnout is a distinct construct—different from occupational burnout and different from depression. To do so, they used a variety of instruments, including an occupational burnout scale and a parental burnout scale. In the second study, the researchers added a global depression scale, a parenting satisfaction scale, a parental neglect scale, a parental violence scale, and a suicidal ideation questionnaire. In addition, the second study used secondary measures of depression, such as measures of problematic alcohol use, disordered sleep, and somatic complaints. To tease out the difference between parental and occupational burnout, measures of job satisfaction and parenting satisfaction were also included.
Parental Burnout: It’s a Thing
The results of the study provide evidence that parental burnout is distinct from occupational burnout and depression.
We can break parental burnout down to three overarching categories:
Burned out parents are exhausted by the unceasing demands of parenting. Although they might have rest periods, they never fully recharge. They’re always in survival mode, which of course leads to more exhaustion and stress. In addition, parental burnout is associated with disordered sleep in several ways. Children tend to interfere with sleep directly—waking up in the middle of the night or way too early in the morning. In addition, burnout is associated with problematic alcohol use, which interferes with restful sleep. Many exhausted parents also procrastinate around bedtime as a desperate attempt to engage in some self-soothing “anesthesia” (which is not the same as self-care). Finally, parental burnout can also lead to feelings of guilt and stress that disturb sleep.
Burned out parents report a sense of detachment from their children. They operate on autopilot and are less able to take pleasure in those day-to-day parenting interactions that used to provide pleasure. It is difficult for them to provide their children with a sense of “felt love,” which means their own sense of being a good parent is depleted. This can become a vicious cycle.
Burned out parents feel ineffective. They might be experiencing specific challenges—sibling rivalry, learning disabilities, parenting a child with an intensely reactive temperament, or any other situation that feels unsolvable. They might attempt to intervene, find their attempts foiled, and feel yet more ineffective. It feels like parenting is too big a task and they are inadequate.
Is Burnout Depression by Another Name?
Depression is a context-free construct. Meaning, a person with clinical depression will demonstrate symptoms throughout their life. Let’s look at it this way. If I tell a clinically depressed person that I’m hiring a nanny, a housekeeper, and a personal assistant to take care of 95% of their daily hassles, and I’m sending them on an all-expenses-paid vacation to an exotic island resort, they will likely show up to that resort, get into bed, and sleep. They will not be able to muster up interest in the opportunities at the resort. Even the five-star cuisine won’t tempt them.
If I do the same to a burned-out parent, the outcome would be very different. Sure, the first day or so, that parent will need to rest. But after that, it’s “Resort, here I come!” The burned-out parent, reassured that their children are in good hands and work is handled and that they are free to engage in self-care will proceed to do so. Burnout is context-specific for the burned-out parent. This means that it’s a different condition than depression and needs to be recognized as such.
Fixing Burnout by Addressing the Three Factors:
Of the three factors, detachment may be the most dangerous for children’s longer-term mental health. When a parent is detached, they can’t attune to their child, and that can lead to deleterious outcomes.
Exhaustion and inefficacy can be addressed directly, via supportive services and education. Contrary to years past, parents try to learn it alone today. There are so many time-efficient hacks parents can benefit from, but there’s often no “grandma’s network” of more experienced parents to learn from. Social media can create a toxic environment of pressure and moralizing about parenting, which makes benefiting from wisdom more experienced parents share complicated.
Ironically, says Moira Mikolajczak, the study’s lead author, the moral component of parenting is what can lead to burnout. Parents try to do it perfectly, and when that is not possible, they burn out. Learning from experts how to parent smarter, not harder, can be beneficial on so many levels.
Finally, it’s imperative that primary care physicians and therapists learn about parental burnout, so they can educate their patients, be aware that these symptoms are distinct from clinical depression, and encourage their patients to access appropriate help.
© Robyn Koslowitz, 2020
Mikolajczak, M., Gross, J. J., Stinglhamber, F., Lindahl Norberg, A., & Roskam, I. (2020). Is Parental Burnout Distinct From Job Burnout and Depressive Symptoms? Clinical Psychological Science. https://doi.org/10.1177/2167702620917447