Parental burnout: do you have any of these tell-tale signs?

Getting to the root cause of parental burnout is the first step in managing it and recovering

When we think of burnout, we imagine someone who works long hours in a high-powered job that eventually catches up on them. We don’t tend to think of ordinary people in all walks of life – from stay-at-home parents to those working full time. However, the reality is that burnout can affect anyone at any time.

And it doesn’t discriminate on the basis of age or socio-economic status.

Burnout is not a new phenomenon, although it has only been recognised in recent years. Knowing what it is, the warning signs of burnout and what to do if you or someone around you appears to be headed in that direction is vital to avoiding and managing the problem.

Siobhán Murray is a psychotherapist with personal experience of burnout. She sees clients regularly who are unknowingly showing signs of burnout due to societal and personal pressures, both perceived and real.


Parental burnout is an increasing problem in today’s society as the pressures of being successful at work, maintaining a pristine home and packing a full family life into the weekends increase. Murray says this pressure can be summed up in the quote “Society wants women to work like they don’t have children and to raise children like they don’t work”. In reality, it is simply not possible to do it all, all of the time.

Burnout is the result of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion, which typically lasts longer than three months. It is more than simply feeling stressed or worn out several times over a long period, it is characterised by constant feelings of exhaustion with little or no relief or break from it.

Murray emphasises the importance of recognising the following signs of parental burnout:
– Continual exhaustion
– Feeling inefficient
– Feeling emotionally distant from children (and other family members)
– Decision fatigue: the inability to make simple decisions confidently
– Irrationally irritated over minor situations
– Feeling no self-value or worth as a parent
– Self-doubting

Finding the cause

Parental burnout can be a result of exhaustion caused by continual exposure to emotionally or physically demanding situations over a prolonged period. Although it can affect anyone at any time, it is common among parents who have children with a long-term illness of behavioural issues. It can also be triggered by the stress of parenting alone or introducing a new baby to the family. Realistically any stressful situation has the potential to cause burnout if we don’t manage that stress effectively.

Murray says one of the most common threads among her clients is a fear of asking for help. “It seems to be a common thread that admitting they are burnt-out means judgment of not being able to cope. We all need help at some stage or another, and learning to ask for help is a sign of strength not a sign of weakness or inability to cope.”

Getting to the root cause of parental burnout is the first step in managing it and recovering from it.

A number of areas should be looked at when trying to determine the cause/trigger:
– Has a recent event/interaction caused increased stress levels that you are struggling to manage?
– Are your parenting expectations unrealistic/unachievable?
– Are you too self-critical when things don't go according to plan?
– Do you adapt to changing environments or could a change in your home/family life have caused unanticipated levels of stress for which you were unprepared?
– Do you have a support system in place that can help you if/when you need it?
– Are you willing to ask your support system for help?

The recovery process

The main difficulty with parental burnout compared with work-related burnout is that we can’t simply take a break from parenting to recover, making it even more important for parents to develop coping mechanisms, build resilience and practice self-care. Although the phrase “self-care” is used constantly where someone is feeling overwhelmed or stressed, it is an important part on the road to recovering from burnout, particularly parental burnout.

In her practice, Murray recognises that it is not always feasible to carve out “me-time” when you are a parent and she focuses instead on getting clients who are experiencing burnout to look at ways they can be kinder to themselves. “Being kind is not about ‘me’ time, it is how we think and feel about ourselves all the time. It is about being able to say, ‘I’m doing the best I can right now, and that is good enough for me’.” In addition to this, the old reliables; eating right, sleeping well and exercising regularly can go a long way towards recovery, all of which can be done at home when time is tight.

The key to recovery is finding the solution and the process that is right for you.