Exhausted? Inefficient? Distant? Parental burnout is inevitable

Most parents, not just mothers, become distressed and exhausted at some stage

Much more to do and less time to do it in – a formula for stress at best and, at worst, complete, paralysing exhaustion.

It’s a scenario that characterises modern parenting – adults working full-time outside the home, maybe with long commutes, then trying to pack lots of enriching activities, along with home-cooked food, into their children’s lives – all while maintaining a family home worthy of Pinterest. Maybe parenting alone or having a child with special needs is adding an extra layer to the burden, while homelessness must make the load near intolerable.

So no wonder “parental burnout” has become a scientifically researched syndrome all of its own – as distinct but not dissimilar to professional burnout. The three legs of the collapsing stool are: exhaustion, a given for most parents at some stage; inefficacy, defined as lacking the capacity to produce the desired effect – another familiar feeling when dealing with children; and “depersonalisation”, or “emotional distancing”.

A Belgian study, the results of which were published earlier this year in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, set out to explore the concept of "parental burnout" that had emerged in the 2000s. Could it be precisely defined and measured, and would those affected meet clinical criteria?


Burnout and depression

Although the survey of 2,000 parents found similarities with professional burnout and depression, there wasn’t total overlap – “ie parental burnout is not just burnout and it is not just depression”, it said.

Researchers from the Université Catholique de Louvain concluded that 12.7 per cent of the parents surveyed (12.9 per cent of the mothers, 11.6 per cent of the fathers) belonged to the “high burnout” category, and 8.8 per cent (almost equal numbers of mothers and fathers) were deemed to being experiencing burnout at the time.

To talk of parental burnout is "pathologising something that is to be expected", suggests child and adolescent psychoanalytical psychotherapist Colman Noctor, of St Patrick's Mental Health Services in Dublin. "As a concept, I think parental burnout is fairly inevitable" – whether you have one or 10 children, and whether they are babies, toddlers or teenagers, there are going to be times of stress and anxiety.

“I think like everything else, it has been amplified in the last five to 10 years because the culture we live in is a psychologically unhealthy environment,” he says.

Ours is a socially comparative culture like never before, so the parental burden can come from trying to keep up with neighbours, friends and all the people you follow on Facebook. We're bombarded with advice on parenting, while providers of children's activities are falling over themselves to convince you to add to the household's timetabling headaches.

“Guilt is one of the most corrosive emotions,” points out Noctor. For instance, if you walk in and find your three-year-old writing on the walls with a crayon and you let a roar at them, that’s instinctual and understandable. “But the book says you shouldn’t raise your voice, so you spend two hours giving yourself a hard time. I think that ruminative aspect adds to the whole position of ‘am I failing?’.”

Behavioural problems

It’s hard enough raising typically developing children, but in Noctor’s line of work he is seeing parents of children with autism or behavioural problems who are completely overwhelmed. Pale-faced parents with bags under their eyes, “who are just wiped out and feel they have failed”. So he acknowledges the “very real pain”, but he is still doubtful about labelling it.

In the 1980s, the essentials of parenting amounted to little more than feeding children, keeping them warm and giving them the odd hug, he says, whereas now the expectation of is so different.

“The fallout from that is, I think, people becoming emotionally distressed and exhausted. And not just mothers” – a belief borne out by the Belgian research.

“Maybe dads don’t have as much hands-on experience as the mums and are just involved majorly in the weekend bits. That gets more stressful because it is so intense over two days” – and he speaks from experience as a father of three.

Indeed, the authors of the study remark that while many workers who suffer burnout may see family life as a safe haven, “for many parents incurring burnout, work seems to be a safe place”. It’s the lack of such a bolt-hole that surely compounds the pressure for stay-at-home parents.

The perfect recipe for guilt is to “reduce your access and increase your expectation”, says Noctor. He is not immune himself.

His son plays on the local under-sevens Gaelic football team and some of his team-mates are much stronger than he is. So Noctor has stood on the sidelines thinking “that’s because their dads are out playing football with them every night – it’s my fault”.

Unrealistic parental expectations can only end in disappointment, which rubs off on children too.

“If my lad is coming off the GAA pitch and I’ve got a sad face, thinking ‘I wish you were better’, I might not be wishing he was better for him but for me as a Dad,” he says. Whereas the healthy response is to give the boy a hug and ask him did he enjoy it, rather than forensically assessing your own ability as a parent.

Changed expectations around parenting is what Prof Jane Gray of the sociology department at Maynooth University also singles out as one of the most important factors in the phenomenon of parental burnout.

“There has, certainly in sociology, been substantial literature on his idea of ‘concerted cultivation’ – that middle-class parents feel responsible to invest a lot of time and energy in preparing their children for success in their future lives by bringing them to classes and teaching them languages,” she explains. “This seems to be the main source of additional stress – for both parents and children actually.”

Dual-earning parents

People often think we have less time to spend with our children but research shows that in the era of the more traditional breadwinner and stay-at-home parent, “they didn’t spend much more ‘quality’ time with their children than dual-earning parents do today because these parents try to preserve time and are more committed to this idea. That is a counter-intuitive finding.”

Any kind of social mobility seems to require huge investment on the part of parents as the structure of society changes, she says. And there are two narratives.

“One, that we need to allow children to spend more traditional time in nature and hanging out with their friends and that those are the things that make for a good childhood.”

Against that there is some research evidence showing that parents are right, that there is linkage between taking your children to classes and structured activities and doing well in school and later in life.

“There is a trade-off there,” she adds, “but it is really about our values and what we think is important for our families and our children.”

“Burnout” is not a term callers to Parentline use. Rather, they talk of being “overwhelmed – it’s just all too much”, reports its chief executive, Rita O’Reilly. The volunteers who operate the listening service have noticed certain trends over the years that increase pressure on families – most obviously the fact that it is a lot more common to have both parents working outside the home full-time.

Constant connectivity

On top of that there is constant connectivity – “everyone contacts everybody at every time of the day”, she points out, be that your boss, your customers, your friends or your extended family. It all eats into family time.

Also, “there’s a huge amount of keeping up with the Joneses, by both the kids and the parents,” she says. Mothers feel they have to look good at the school gate – a recent poster on Rollercoaster asked for advice on “school-run style” because she felt her gym gear no longer cut it – and the house has to be perfect.

“Everything has to be right, so people are chasing their tails to keep that up,” says O’Reilly.

Lack of sleep and regular meals, for children and adults alike, are contributing to the feeling of overload. And all these things feed into each other, she points out.

Earlier bedtimes for children was identified as a possible "sanity saver" for the whole family in Australian research published in 2015. Drawing on data from the Growing Up in Australia longitudinal study, it found that children who get to sleep early are more likely to be healthier, and their mothers to enjoy better mental health. "Early to bed" was defined as being asleep by 8.30pm and this seemed to be more important than the length of time they slept.  "These benefits were seen in all early-to-bed kids regardless of whether they woke early or slept late," said lead researcher, Dr Jon Quach, of the Murdoch Children's Research Institute in Melbourne.

Sleep cut-off

It’s hardly a surprise to hear that parents who are not still running up and down the stairs after 8.30pm to deal with “I’m thirsty”, “I need a wee”, “I’m scared”, have better mental health. But achieving that sleep cut-off is easier said than done if parents and children have been apart all day.

Lone parents are more at risk of burnout than most and it's a condition that Geraldine Kelly, director of children and parenting services with One Family, has seen among those turning to the organisation for support.

“Parents know how to parent; the impact of stress is what the real difficulty is,” she explains. Life’s challenges can be difficult enough for two-adult families, without having to deal with separation, sickness or a child with special needs.

“It’s that constant pressure, of the challenge of keeping going, the continued patience needed and trying to do that on your own every day, that is where the burnout comes,” she says. Where then does the energy and patience come from to parent in the way that you want to?

“Unfortunately we do see parents just burning out – feeling they can’t cope any longer with children, thinking about letting other people take over for a while.”

People who are sharing parenting may give up on the idea. “It just becomes too much and they let the other parent take over, or the children end up going into foster care for a period of time or the parent ends up going into hospital.”

When parents become well again, it is a challenge to turn that situation around.

“It is really sad when it goes that far but when people can’t cope any longer, they think the best thing is to give the child to someone else. Whereas it isn’t that they couldn’t do it – it was just that the pressure mounted so hard that they couldn’t see another way out. That is what you want to combat.”

One Family has introduced a “Parenting Through Stressful Times” programme that is run for both professionals and parents.

People surrounded by family and friends might not understand how it could get that bad. But there are so many people who don’t have that kind of support, she says, or who try to make it look like to the world that everything is great.

“Then one day it all explodes – it is just too much for them.”

Emotional support

She doesn’t believe it is down to finances because she has seen it a lot with middle-class families – “probably more so because they think they should be able to cope, they have the means to do it”. But it’s emotional support they need.

“The pressure is huge and the fall is very great – and to come back from that fall is even greater.”

Just to be able to share your troubles with somebody is so difficult because it always looks as if your friend or your neighbour has it all going on, Kelly says. “Everyone is pretending that they are doing super well and the kids are doing super well when, in actual fact, there is a lot of people who are really stressed out and not being honest about it.

“I think if we were all more honest about actually how difficult it is, then we wouldn’t put so much pressure on each other.”

The last word goes to Noctor, who urges parents to “play the long game”. Envisage a triangle of happy children, clean house and your sanity – “you have to give one of those up, you can’t keep the three things going”. The choice is yours.


See parentline.ie or call its helpline at 1890-927277; onefamily.ie or call its helpline at 1890-662 212; stpatricks.ie or call its support and information service at 01-2493333.

PANEL: You’re going nowhere: dealing with parental stress

No matter how tempting it can be on occasions to walk out the front door and leave your squabbling children to their own devices, quitting is not an option. This is one workplace that cannot be swapped for another, which you think would be less frenetic and where you might feel more appreciated. Some preventative measures would be the same as to counter professional burnout, such as self-care, trying to get more sleep and exercise and to eat healthily. Other tips include:

1 Manage the lens through which you see parenting and adjust it to give yourself a break, advises Colman Noctor of St Patrick's Mental Health Services. If your expectations are realistic, you will be less disappointed.

2 Don't get sucked into the "attention economy", he adds. Everybody is vying for your attention, so you need to prioritise what is important.

3 Learn to recognise stress, see where it’s building and be aware of how it changes the way you deal with people, says Geraldine Kelly of One Family.

4 Try to have the family working more as a team, she suggests, getting children involved in running the household.

5 Where there are stressed parents, there are stressed children, so take opportunities to regroup and slow down together, through walks in nature or quiet times snuggling on the sofa.

6 Take stock and enjoy the moment, says Rita O'Reilly of Parentline. "Children don't need an activity every day of the week – look at substituting it with family time in the park instead."

7 It's okay to ask – that's the theme of National Parents' Week that started on September 18th. Whether it's practical help or advice you need, don't hesitate to ask family, friends, neighbours or ring Parentline on 1890-927277.