If you feel like you have no energy, the sound of your little one crying is like nails on a chalkboard, and you switch from sad to angry in a matter of seconds, you may start to wonder if you're experiencing more than just a tough day of motherhood. Parental burnout in toddler moms is a real thing, but it can easily be brushed off as just a rough stretch of parenting. There are dangers of letting burnout linger, but, thankfully, there are also ways to get out of it.
Therapist Nicole Grocki tells Romper that, while "'burnout' isn't a clinical term," it's a way to describe "persistent feelings of stress with little to no breaks." Mothers often go through periods of feeling this way, but this is particularly true for moms of toddlers because "toddlers are constantly on the go" and "emotionally volatile," which can leave a mom feeling "exhausted by [their] mood swings," Licensed Professional Counselor Kirsten Brunner tells Romper.
"There are three main components of parental burnout," says psychiatrist Kristin Lasseter, M.D., "physical and mental exhaustion, emotionally distancing yourself from your child, and feeling incompetent as a parent." As psychotherpaist Kellie Wicklund tells Romper, two of those aspects are present in everyday life when parenting a toddler because tots "are in profoundly dynamic developmental growth, and parenting them requires deep energy reserves that many moms find themselves lacking." Interestingly, burnout can look a lot like postpartum depression, according to Dr. Lasseter, but if the child is over 18 months of age, "the depression is specifically surrounding the mom's role as a parent rather than a more generalized depression."
This type of burnout can happen to any parent at any time, but the toddler years are particularly risky. In order for a mom to take care of herself, and, in turn, provide the best care for her little one, it's important to understand what burnout looks like, what contributes to it, and how to avoid it or manage it when it arises.
1. Common Symptoms
Every mom is tired, but Brunner says those experiencing burnout display physical symptoms of "absolute exhaustion and depletion" such as slumped shoulders or "dark circles under their eyes." A burned-out mom may also look disheveled, like she's not taking care of herself. Grocki notes that this "lack of self-care" could be because she "either has no time or no desire to do so".
In general, burnout symptoms tend to be more behavioral than physical. A burned-out mom may be impatient, and Brunner says she's seen patients "expressing anger or even rage more frequently." She adds that moms experiencing burnout can sometimes be "more tearful, quite emotional" or, on the opposite end, "their emotions are blunted or flat."
Some other behaviors a burned-out mom may display, according to Grocki, are socially withdrawing, an inability to concentrate or make decisions, appetite change (increase or decrease), inability to cope with life's challenges, and just generally not acting/feeling like themselves. Additionally, Wicklund warns that "anxiety and depression can begin to emerge when the output of energy goes on for too long in a state of imbalance."
2. Contributing Factors
The most obvious answer to what contributes to parental burnout would be "the kids," but it's actually a bit more complex than that. Dr. Lasseter says this type of burnout occurs when a "parent [has] too many demands placed on them without enough resources to handle those demands."
"It is often linked to moms who have given too much of themselves to parenting for too long," she continues. "They've become in charge of everything related to their children. This usually stems from a desire to do everything perfectly and be the perfect parent for their children."
Brunner says it's easy to understand why a mom may feel like she needs to do everything perfectly, because she is constantly hearing the "societal message that [she] can, and should, do it all." That narrative only adds to the external factors Wicklund mentions, like a lack of "job flexibility, affordable and high-quality daycare, and family support." Finally, Grocki adds that a "history of mental health issues" like anxiety or depression can also contribute to the development of burnout.
3. Warning Signs
Self-awareness is key to seeing the warning signs of burnout in yourself. You may be inching closer to burnout if you notice you have been "feeling physically exhausted, overwhelmed, less patient with [your] kids, or enjoying parenting less," according to Brunner. Dr. Lasseter reiterates these signs, but also adds that in addition to simply not enjoying parenting as much, you may also notice yourself becoming "more emotionally distant with your children."
4. Risks For Moms Of Toddlers
Parental burnout can happen to any mom (or dad) no matter how old their kids are. However, the toddler years stand out because, as Wicklund explains, "Toddlers are irrepressible and caring for them is relentless. They have plenty of physical abilities, and no good judgement about danger or risk." Dr. Lasseter adds, "They demand a lot from us physically, and demand a lot of emotional attention. They need help doing nearly everything."
Most of the demands toddlers put on their parents have everything to do with their development. "They really want to be more independent but they are still incredibly dependent on their parents," Brunner says. "This creates a constant push and pull — they want to do it themselves, but they really need your help" (any mom who has tried to put a toddler in a car seat can certainly relate to this).
There is also a lot of emotional development happening during the toddler years. "They can't quite express their own needs or desires well yet, so they get easily frustrated and throw tantrums, which can be emotionally and physically difficult on parents," Dr. Lasseter notes. Tantrums are hard enough for parents to deal with, but on top of that, Brunner points out that raising toddlers also means dealing with "night wakings, potty training, and separation anxiety." She explains that all of these factors leave mom in a constant state of "on the go," so it's difficult to simply "sit and enjoy a meal or watch a TV show."
5. How Burnout Is Different For Toddler Moms
The core symptoms and behaviors of parental burnout are similar no matter the age of the child. But, there are additional symptoms/behaviors moms might display in the toddler years. Brunner says a toddler mom could "look for ways to avoid time with her child" or rely on "TV or other devices" more frequently to keep her kid busy. She might even "dread spending long stretches of time" with their toddler.
Grocki adds that toddler moms "may have difficulty setting and maintaining limits," and Dr. Lasseter says they "can become less affectionate, less understand, and less loving" of their child. In more extreme cases, Dr. Lasseter warns that "moms suffering from burnout can also be more neglectful and violent."
6. What To Do If You're Burned Out
Whether you're noticing yourself slipping into a state of parental burnout or you're already there and have been for a while, there are some things you can do to help yourself cope and, ultimately, get out of it. Each expert agrees that one of the best things a burned-out mom can do is seek help, whether it's from their partner, friends, family, or a professional. Some additional things Brunner suggests include finding a way to be around adults (particularly for extroverts) and getting some quiet alone time (especially for introverts). Grocki recommends making time for self care and doing whatever it takes to get a break. Finally, Dr. Lasseter says "it is important to set more realistic and lower goals as a parent, and to be more gentle and kind to yourself." She also encourages moms to seek treatment which "should include therapy and may even include medication."
The hardest part about parental burnout for a mom is that if there were time for things like self-care and alone time, she probably wouldn't be burned-out in the first place. It's perfectly understandable, given all of the challenges toddlers give their moms, but all of the experts agree that reaching the point of total burn-out puts a mom at risk of developing (or worsening) depression. It's important to seek help from the people who love you and/or a medical professional if things just aren't getting better.
Nicole Grocki, MS, LMFT, Clinical Therapist & Perinatal Specialist at Maternal Wellness Services