The Impact of COVID-19 on Parental Burnout
Five tips to reduce burnout supported by psychological science.
Posted February 23, 2021
Co-authored by Jasmin S. Searcy-Pate, Ph.D. and Erlanger A. Turner, Ph.D.
The American Psychological Association recently released data from its Stress in America Survey, indicating that 8 in 10 Americans reported feelings of emotional stress (47% anxious, 44% sad, 39% angry). Since the pandemic last year, stress levels across America have continued to increase. Many families may be experiencing increased stress due to working from home, serving as their kids’ teacher, employment loss, or stress due to significant life changes as a result of COVID-19. High levels of stress for an extended period of time can lead to psychological burnout.
COVID-19 and Parental Burnout
As a parent, it may come as a surprise; but the coronavirus pandemic has various psychological phases of disaster. As described by the Washington State Department of Health and adapted from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), phases of reactions in disasters can result in stress and mental health difficulties.
The figure below features a graph that maps out a community’s typical response to disaster. Initially, there is a slight decrease in one’s mental health with the threat of an imminent crisis. Over time, there is typically an upward spike (i.e., honeymoon phase) followed by a significant decrease in one’s mental health (i.e., disillusionment phase also characterized by emotional burnout). Finally, individuals and communities enter what is referred to as reconstruction — where they begin to adjust to the “new normal."
Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has uprooted family life around the world. Some parents may find themselves losing their temper at their children due to significant changes in all aspects of daily living during the phases of disaster. As a result of experiences of parental burnout in post-disaster settings including the COVID-19 pandemic, research examining levels of parental-related stress has suggested that parents who experience burnout during various phases (e.g., disillusionment) are more likely to engage in child abuse and neglect, placing children at risk for both short- and long-term outcomes (Griffith, 2020; Razaeian, 2013; WHO, 2005).
Signs of Parental Burnout
Parents should understand that the impact of the current COVID-19 pandemic may linger long after the current shelter in place orders come to an end. There are some signs of parental burnout that all caregivers can be made aware of, so that, if you feel “on edge” you can reach out as soon as possible for professional help or support. Below are a few warning signs of burnout.
- Overwhelming mental and physical exhaustion: The mind and body are connected and are not separate entities. Thus, parents can experience chronic fatigue or exhaustion that does not go away with rest. Typically, parents report feeling so drained that simply thinking of what they need to do for their children is exhausting. Parents may also experience any of the following signs:
- Somatic complaints (i.e., headache/migraine, gastrointestinal issues, cardiovascular difficulties)
- Weight loss/gain
- Difficulties with initiating and maintaining sleep
- Changes in behavior
- Emotional detachment: This is a consequence of exhaustion, as parents may pull back from managing their child’s daily tasks or behavior compared to before the pandemic. Additionally, they may lose pleasure in their parental role. Sometimes, parents endorse having difficulties showing their children love and/or being emotionally present. A 2019 research study published in Clinical Psychological Science found a correlation between parental burnout and increased fantasies about leaving or escaping, parental neglect, and aggressive parenting behaviors like spanking and slapping (Mikolajczak, Gross, & Roskam, 2019).
- Loss of productivity: Parents may feel a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment in daily tasks compared to their previous levels of functioning. If you feel tired or exhausted, it is not uncommon to have these feelings under extremely stressful circumstances.
Tips for Reducing Burnout
We all experience stress in our lives at some point. However, for some, engaging in healthy coping strategies can help to reduce burnout. Below are five evidence-based self-care suggestions:
Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is a mental state in which an individual focuses on being present in the moment while calmly accepting their thoughts, feelings, and sensations. Psychological studies have demonstrated how mindfulness can help reduce the risk of burnout and mental health difficulties. Considering finding books on mindfulness or using apps that provide tools on engaging in mindfulness.
Avoid rigid thinking patterns. As psychologists, we are aware of the connections between our thinking, mood, and behavior. Research shows that positive thinking can help to reduce burnout. Consider how you approach your day — especially if you are working from home or have kids homeschooling. Given the stress of the pandemic, be mindful of your resources that can help prevent burnout. Determine ways to incorporate breaks in your day and avoid rigid expectations that don’t allow you to give yourself grace. It’s okay if everything doesn’t get done on a particular day.
Maintain physical activity. Engaging in physical activity and exercise can play an important role in stress reduction. Try to include some movement in your day to help prevent burnout. Go for a walk, exercise at home, or incorporate stretch breaks in your day while working from home. Studies have shown that using exercise can play a significant role in reducing symptoms of anxiety, depression, and stress.
Seek social support. Identify your support system to help prevent burnout. For example, it may be helpful to talk with a friend about your favorite tv show, podcast, or a recent movie that you watched. Social support is very important given the limitations with COVID-19 and safely practicing physical distancing. If you feel that you are unable to confide in a close friend or family member, it may also be helpful to consider locating a licensed mental health therapist or psychologist that can help you with identifying strategies to cope with stress.
Take a break and unplug. Given our current society, it can be difficult to step away from technology or the constant news cycle. For some people, it can be a challenge to switch off work after hours — which could increase the risk of burnout. Monitor your intake of news and how much time you spend on technology such as Facebook or Instagram. Although technology can serve as a stress reducer, research also shows that too much use of social media can have negative impacts on mental health.
To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
Copyright 2021 Jasmin S. Searcy-Pate, Ph.D. and Erlanger A. Turner, Ph.D
About the Guest Co-Author
Dr. Searcy-Pate is a Child/Pediatric Health Psychologist and Clinical Director/Owner of Searcy Pediatric and Adolescent Behavioral Healthcare. Her interests and expertise include general child/adolescent mental health, pediatric health complications, and stress reduction. The focus of her practice is the interactions between the mind and the body and the powerful ways in which biological, psychological and social factors affect physical health and well-being. Dr. Searcy-Pate also serves as Clinical Lecturer (and Course Developer) at Northwestern University. She has published journal articles across a range of clinical topics, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and pediatric sickle cell disease. For more information, see here.
Griffith A. K. (2020). Parental burnout and child maltreatment during the COVID-19 pandemic. Journal of Family Violence. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10896-020-00172-2
Mikolajczak, M., Gross, J. J., & Roskam, I. (2019). Parental Burnout: What Is It, and Why Does It Matter? Clinical Psychological Science, 7(6), 1319–1329. https://doi.org/10.1177/2167702619858430
Rezaeian, M. (2013). The association between natural disasters and violence: A systematic review of the literature and a call for more epidemiological studies. Journal of Research in Medical Sciences, 18(12), 1103–1107.
SAMHSA (2020). Phases of Disaster. Retrieved February 19, 2021 from https://www.samhsa.gov/dtac/recovering-disasters/phases-disaster
World Health Organization. (2005). Violence and Disasters. Department of Injuries and Violence Prevention. Geneva, Switzerland. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/violence_injury_prevention/publications/violence/vi…