Let’s face it, parenting is not easy. Adjusting to your new life and baby brings many changes and challenges, no matter how prepared you may feel. With constant pressure to try to juggle and balance family commitments, coping with ever-changing feed and sleep routines and keeping up a social life, it is no wonder many parents feel like they are running on survival mode.
Clinical burnout has mostly been studied in relation to service providers in high stress professions like health care or law. More recently however, there is a growing body of research that suggests burnout can occur in other caring roles, like parenting. There is one key difference from job burnout however – you cannot resign or take leave from being a parent!
Parents often describe feelings of burning out with the busy lives of their children and other responsibilities, work or caring for other family members. This has been compounded with additional stress in the last few years as parents experienced limited access to usual family and social supports, self-care activities, work/ life balances or routines.
The struggle of the juggle is real but there are many strategies which you can implement to help feel more balanced. It’s important to remember you’re not alone in feeling overwhelmed and support is available.
Read our article below as we share signs to look out, strategies to implement and services that can support you.
Causes of parental feelings of burning out
Parental feelings of burnout or diminished quality of life typically start to develop when there is too much stress and not enough resources to cope with it. Parents who aim to be the perfect parent, with high expectations on themselves and their children are at the greatest risk of feeling that they are burning out.
Other risk factors that can lead to burn out include:
- An absence of good stress management strategies in place or struggle to regulate your emotions.
- Families that have children with special needs or other family members who need support e.g. elderly grandparents, that impact on family life stretch time and resources even further
- Financial insecurity, social isolation or lack of practical and emotional supports.
- Currently experiencing mental health issues or having a history of mental health challenges. It is more important to act promptly if you notice yourself start to feel this way.
- Lower access to practical and emotional support from family, friends and health support services.
Understanding parental burnout symptoms
Feelings of burnout develop over time, but parents will initially experience a feeling of overwhelming exhaustion. This will look different depending on the age of the children, with parents of young children more likely to be physically tired compared to those with adolescents who may experience more emotional exhaustion.
Common symptoms include:
- You don’t want to spend as much time with your children in order to preserve energy levels.
- Emotional distancing – you notice you don’t have the same level of enjoyment when spending time with your children, and may feel a loss of empathy or fulfillment in your parenting role. This emotional distance can impact your capacity to parent the way that they would like to.
- Feeling you’re an ineffective parent; as you no longer feel like you’re being the parent that they would like to be.
Over time if stressors are not addressed and feelings of burnout worsen, depression-like symptoms may emerge. These include:
- Difficulty concentrating and memory problems e.g. not being able to concentrate enough to watch a TV show that you would have previously enjoyed, forgetting to do chores that need to be done, forgetting conversations.
- It feels hard to make simple decisions e.g. what to have for dinner, what to wear today.
- Your thoughts are going round in circles and worrying about things that previously wouldn’t worry you.
- Noticing negative thoughts about yourself or the way you are parenting.
- You may feel trapped, unlike other jobs that can be put on hold.
Prolonging these symptoms can lead to more severe consequences, including suicidal thoughts and even feelings of neglect or violence towards your children. If you notice yourself experiencing any of these symptoms it is important to seek help as early as you can. Call the ForWhen helpline on 1300 24 23 22 to speak to a clinician who will connect you to the right support for you.
Please Note: If you are feeling suicidal and don’t feel you can keep yourself safe, you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14or 000 for an Ambulance.
Ongoing feelings of burnout and chronic stress can lead to changes in key behaviours, including:
- Changes in your sleeping patterns – not being able to get to sleep even if you feel tired, not being able to stay asleep or taking a long time to get back off to sleep. It is common to try and stay “on top of everything” by completing housework, chores etc when your children are in bed, however this limits your time to rest which impacts on your sleep and ability to function the next day.
- Changes in eating habits – eating too much, not eating enough or surviving on the scraps of what your children do not eat.
- Social withdrawal or isolation – e.g. noticing that it has become a big effort to find the energy to leave the home or avoiding social situations that you used to attend.
- Feelings of exhaustion – you may feel heavy, a lack of energy, slow movements
- Feeling worn out and depleted
- Upset stomach or lack of appetite
- More prone to illness e.g. common colds
Impact of parental burnout on children
When you are struggling to look after yourself it can feel very hard to look after someone else, especially a young child that requires you to be highly responsive and engaged. This decreased quality of interaction can impact on the developing attachment relationship of your child.
Children are hard-wired to try to remain in a strong relationship with their caregiver, so when this changes they can have some behavioural changes in an attempt to bring that person back. If this continues for a prolonged period, this behaviour can appear as ‘naughty’ or withdrawn.
When we are under stress, we can often take this out on the people closest to us, causing increased conflict and increased feelings of tension within our relationships. It is also common to experience impaired communication, whereby it is difficult to see someone else’s point of view when you are struggling. In turn, this can increase the stress and decrease the emotional support that you receive.
In prolonged and severe cases there is a potential for long-term effects on child development, and this is a really good reason to ask for help. If you are worried you may be experiencing burnout, call the ForWhen helpline on 1300 24 23 22. We’ll connect you to the right local mental health support for your needs.
Prevention & coping strategies – coming back from the pandemic
There is no denying over the past couple of years our social networks have been severely impacted. This makes becoming a parent, an already challenging and isolating time, even more difficult. However this period, more than ever, is the time to prioritise connections with extended family, other parents and solid support networks.
As a new parent, it’s common to neglect your own needs and put your baby first. However, just like you’re told on a plane, you need to put your mask on first before you can help others. To prevent burnout, we recommend regularly practicing self-care and stress reduction techniques.
It’s important to remember, small self-care steps can make a big difference. Self-care may look very different now as it did pre-baby, it could be as simple as a warm shower or enjoying a cup of (warm!) tea in silence. It’s not necessarily about how long you get, but more so knowing you have that time to yourself coming.
In the face of feeling that you are beginning to experience burnout again, it can be really hard to feel self-compassion. Self-compassion is really just being kind to yourself as you would towards someone you love. It can sound like a small thing to do but imagine not putting yourself under the pressure to do all the things that you “should” and how much less stress you could put yourself under.
Mindfulness is a great “reset” tool to pause and pay attention to the present without judgement. The aim is not to make things better, but to just notice what is going on inside you, what is happening around you and taking a moment to stop and breathe before continuing the day.
Make room for difficult feelings. Why do we think that some feelings are better than others and others are wrong or bad? There is no good or bad, feelings are just feelings! Feeling angry or sad is ok, we can make space for these feelings, accept that this is how you are feeling today, and notice that this feeling will change or pass over the day.
Thoughts are not facts – our brains are brilliantly designed as problem solving tools, anticipating any dangers and planning accordingly. For the most part this is incredibly helpful in managing our busy lives, until we believe everything it tells us. Has your mind ever told you, “you could be a better mother”, “my baby will get sick if I don’t look after it properly or worse”?
Of course, some thoughts have a grain of truth, but the reality is, our brains are planning for the worst-case scenario, and we can learn to distance ourselves from these unhelpful thoughts. Saying to yourself “thanks for that brain” can be a useful strategy to give some space between the thought and you, reminding yourself that not everything our brain tells us is the whole truth.
Sensory modulation techniques
Sensory modulation techniques are a great way to manage emotions, you do not have to argue with your brain about right or wrong, good or bad, or wrestle trying to change these thoughts, they can just be.
Your body will naturally reduce its stress level because of arousal through using deep pressure (weighted blankets, the family pet, a bear hug, wrapping yourself in a blanket), rhythmical movements such as walking or rocking or using the big muscles in your body (doing yoga or using exercise bands to push or pull) and being aware of the feeling in your body when you are doing this.
As much as you need to reduce your arousal levels for yourself, this can be helpful for everyone around you. Have strategies that you know help your children to down regulate emotions, which can be going for a walk outside (babies love being outside), jump on a trampoline (for older children) or have a quiet activity that they enjoy ready for such occasions.
It can take some planning in advance but having ideas stored away means you don’t have to think on the spur of the moment.
When life is becoming chaotic and exhausting it can be hard to get the things done that have to be done. Having a planner on the go can help provide some structure to your week. You may like to include chores for the week and one activity each day out of the house (that hopefully meets your need for social connection).
When you are feeling like you are burning out it is really important to set realistic expectations. This often means using your skills in self-compassion and prioritising what has to be done rather than what you expect you can get done with your current energy levels. It is OK to put the non-essential jobs off until another day.
Good nutrition can be hard to achieve when you are already feeling tired and worn out, but we do know that eating a more healthy diet helps with our overall mood. Having healthy snacks in the house or planning meals in advance can help to meet this goal.
It’s important to know feelings of burnout are common amongst parents. However, if these strategies aren’t improving your burnout symptoms, it is important to seek professional help when necessary.
Seeking professional help
Juggling parenthood can be exhausting, but if you notice these feelings and thoughts are all-consuming it is time to seek further professional support.
It is particularly important to reach out to your GP or other mental health professional, if you notice your mood is down for more than two weeks, your anxiety is stopping you from going outside the house or doing things you need to do, you have feelings of guilt or hopelessness, or thoughts of suicide, self-harm or harming your baby.
There are some excellent evidence-based psychological therapies that can help manage the symptoms of burnout, Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) are among the most common. There are online resources and self help books which use these therapies to help you put strategies in place. In some cases, feelings of burnout can lead into a possible depression or anxiety disorder, so your GP may discuss the use of medication to help you before using psychological therapeutic strategies.
If your feelings of burnout have had an impact on your relationship with your partner and communication has become difficult, it can also be useful to access relationship counselling to work through these issues with the support of a professional.
With so much support out there, we understand sometimes it can be overwhelming to try and find the right place to get help. The ForWhen helpline (1300 24 23 22) is a great place to start. We’re a national navigation service that is here to listen to you, understand how you’re feeling and connect you to the right local supports that best match your needs.
Feelings of parental burnout are common and can be overcome
As a parent, often you are so focused on the needs of your children that you neglect your own. It can be hard to recognise feelings of burnout as they can creep up on you through the day-to-day demands of parenting. It is often not until someone else notices you’re not your usual self or seem to be struggling for you to get a wake up call.
Once you recognise you are experiencing symptoms of burnout it is important to implement some strategies so that things don’t continue to get worse:
- Self-awareness and self-compassion – by learning ways of being kind to ourselves we can significantly reduce the stress.
- Ask for help when needed – we are not designed to bring up children in isolation, we need to ask for help before things get out of hand. People like to be asked, but often don’t know what they can do so try to be specific e.g. come round and put a load of washing on for us, hold the baby while you clean the bathroom.
- Seek professional support – call the ForWhen helpline on 1300 24 23 22 to get connected with local support services.
Frequently Asked Questions
See our most commonly asked questions we receive about parental burnout.
Honestly, probably never, the focus just changes from the physical demands of parenting to the emotional demands, managing big emotions of toddlers (and teenagers). Learning to balance your parenting skills and available resources with your expectations and stressors is the key.
The feelings of burnout can be assisted by getting more practical and emotional supports and learning some tricks to reducing the stress. Postpartum depression is an illness that needs to be treated in consultation with your GP.
Absolutely! And the same tricks and tips apply.
It takes a village to raise a child! Ensure you have a good support team around you and ask for help. It’s just as important to take care of your own needs as it is to take care of your baby’s. Have realistic expectations of what is possible in a day, and try to have a loose structure to your week, keeping in mind things may change along the way.
Yes, in fact they are probably at a greater risk as they do not have the opportunity to spend time away from their children or have the respite of a workplace to recharge.