Parenthood is as exhausting as it is rewarding, but sometimes parents experience parental burnout, a real thing that can have some very significant consequences if it isn't acknowledged and treated accordingly.
In a recent study by the Association for Psychological Science, what's known as parental burnout — "an intense exhaustion that leads parents to feel detached from their children and unsure of their parenting abilities" — can have long-term effects that impact not only the parent, but the child or children of the parent. In three separate studies that inspected how parents feel and act over time, it was concluded that parental burnout can lead to child neglect, and that neglect can, in turn, lead to additional parental burnout.
To find out more, Romper spoke with Ebru Sidar, educator and licensed therapist, Tessa Stuckey, a licensed professional counselor, and Bryce Reddy, a licensed mental health counselor, about how parents can cope with parental burnout. While not everyone has access to affordable and culturally-competent mental health care, there are some steps that can be taken to address some of the symptoms related to parental burnout.
All three therapists urge parents who feel that they’ve lost their ability to take care of their child, or parents who might harm themselves or their children, to seek professional help immediately. But in addition to seeking out the help of a therapist or counselor, changing up the routine at home could help alleviate stress. Don’t let the popular narrative that overwhelming stress and exhaustion are just "part of the parenting job" stop you from taking steps to take care of your mental health.
“Having a weekly check-in between parents to address the logistics of what needs to be done for the family, as well as any personal needs for re-charge and connection, can be a good step in moving forward,” Reddy says. If you’re a single parent or have trouble communicating with a co-parent, consider reaching out to close family member or trusted friend who can and is willing to support you.
If you feel like you’ve passed your breaking point and have no idea what to do, take a moment to breathe. You deserve a break. You deserve to take a moment for yourself. This does not make you selfish. And, if you can, surround yourself with other people who can understand what you're going through.
“Meeting other parents who have children like themselves can help prevent parental burnout,” Sidar says. Not only will you have people to connect with and talk to who might be experiencing what you’re going through, but you can also discuss the possibility of doing child care swaps or setting up other child care plans that will alleviate your overwhelm.
If you can afford it, Stuckey recommends that parents plan a getaway when they are dealing with parental burnout. “Both parents need to recharge and they might just need a break from reality to do that," she says. "Even if it's only for 24 hours, taking the time to reevaluate, focus on self, and possibly the marriage/relationship is important." Whether it's taking a few hours to explore your neighborhood, or going out for a meal without your kids, taking yourself out of the situation can do wonders for your mental health.
“If you can't getaway, because we aren't always able to do so, breakdown the moments you have to get through with your kids — dinner, bath, bedtime — until you can have some alone time," Stuckey adds. "Remind yourself that it's only a few more hours or one more day and then reward yourself with some peaceful, soothing alone time.” And, of course, most days that might feel impossible. But it helps to find out if there is anyone who can take over your duties for even a short period of time so that you can get a break.
While you’re finding ways to deal with parental burnout, try not to be too worried about being "perfect" and raising "perfect" children, Sidar says. No one is perfect and being hard on yourself, or giving yourself unreasonable expectations, does more harm than good. “If we can destroy our 'must do' walls and listen our inner voice, we could see that there are ties between each parent and child,” Sidar adds.
If your inner voice is telling you to get professional help, trust that voice. But also consider other changes you can make at home to deal with the symptoms of parental burnout.
If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.