More than two-thirds of parents experienced parental burnout last year, according to the results of a recent survey from researchers at Ohio State University (OSU). The researchers collected data from 1,285 parents, all of whom had children under the age of 18 living with them, via a survey conducted online between January and April 2021. Certain conditions were “strongly associated with parental burnout,” according to the survey: Among these were being female, having anxiety, and having children with either anxiety or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Not surprising, the number of children also played a role in parental burnout, the researchers found. According to the survey, burnout “increased in households with two or three children, plateaued with four or five children, and increased again with six or more children.” Lastly, parental burnout was strongly associated with parents who were concerned that one or more of their children were suffering from an undiagnosed mental health disorder.
In 2019 the World Health Organization (WHO) added burnout to a list known as the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11). However, burnout is not an established medical condition, and the WHO’s classification only defines it in terms of the workplace: “Burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” That said, some signs associated with workplace burnout, per the WHO, are also associated with parental burnout, including feelings of exhaustion and trouble functioning as one normally does.
The findings of the new survey highlight the many challenges parents have faced throughout the pandemic, Bernadette Melnyk, PhD , OSU’s chief wellness officer and dean of the College of Nursing, tells SELF. “We truly have a mental health pandemic inside our COVID-19 pandemic ,” Dr. Melnyk, who authored the survey, says. The survey results also emphasized the need for parents to understand their limits and take note when symptoms of parental burnout start creeping up–before they reach an unmanageable level. “We’ve got to move to a prevention framework,” Dr. Melnyk says, adding that the effects of parental burnout can be detrimental. Below, what to know about parental burnout—including warning signs and resources parents can utilize–according to mental health experts.
What is parental burnout, and what are the symptoms?
“Burnout is a state of physical and emotional exhaustion that is caused by dealing with high levels of stress for extended periods of time,” Erlanger A. Turner, PhD , assistant professor of psychology at Pepperdine University and executive director of Therapy for Black Kids , who was not involved with the new research, tells SELF.
That exhaustion is widely felt in the parenting community, in no small part because of the pandemic, Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD , a psychologist, tells SELF. “It’s been a long, hard haul, and it’s just not over,” Dr. Kennedy-Moore, who was not involved with the new research, says. “It’s just the strain of having had to cope under such difficult circumstances for so long: People are profoundly tired.” The conditions of the pandemic–not knowing when risk of disease will subside, uncertainty about when pre-pandemic routines can be reinstated–has turned some coping strategies upside down for parents, she adds.
Namely, COVID-19 forced parents to live in a state of indefinite pause. “Often, we get through something [by saying], ‘If I make it through Sunday, I’m good,’” Dr. Kennedy-Moore says. “COVID has cut into a lot of the normal things we would do to save ourselves. There is no break.”
And though the risk of severe disease and death for many individuals has been reduced thanks to safe and effective vaccines , the pandemic is still wreaking havoc on kids’ and adults’ calendars (especially for the children and parents of children who are not yet eligible for vaccination). Dr. Kennedy-Moore shares that she recently had four patients cancel in the span of one week due to in-house COVID-19 cases. “In my school district they re-instituted masks. The ‘When are we ever going to be done?’ feeling is very hard” for people raising children, she explains.
Certain warning signs can signal the onset of parental burnout—and should serve as a parent’s cue to pay attention to their own needs, experts say. “I always tell people if they are experiencing burnout to the point where it’s interfering with their concentration, judgment, or functioning, that’s a big red flag that they need help,” Dr. Melnyk says. For some, this can mean a change in the way they perceive their parental duties. “When we look at our kids and they feel like obstacles rather than beloved people–that’s a sign that we need a break,” Dr. Kennedy-Moore explains.
Loss of motivation, frequent headaches, or feeling overwhelmed by an easy task are also potential signs of parental burnout, Dr. Turner says. To that list, Dr. Melnyk adds fatigue, irritability, the tendency to get angry easily, and sleeping too much or not enough.
If you are unsure whether or not parental burnout is affecting your mental health, Dr. Melnyk recommends using the scale provided in the recently released survey . It asks parents to rate certain circumstances—such as “I wake up exhausted at the thought of another day with my children” and “I lose my temper easily with my children”—on a scale, then gives them a score. That score determines whether a parent may be dealing with mild, moderate, or severe parental burnout, and provides guidance for next steps depending on where they fall. While this can be a helpful tool in determining whether or not certain lifestyle adjustments might benefit you, keep in mind that a survey is by no means an official diagnosis, nor should it be used in place of guidance from a health care professional. However, it may be a helpful first step if you’ve been feeling any of the aforementioned symptoms and aren’t sure where to begin.
What to do if you think you’re experiencing parental burnout
Whether or not you take the survey, you may already have a sense of whether your current mental health state falls into the definition of parental burnout. If your burnout feels more mild—for instance, if you feel irritable and tired all the time—the answer might be as simple as reinstating healthy practices that may have been pushed aside. Below, we’ve rounded up several ideas from experts about what parents can do to help alleviate their burnout.
Make time for alone time.
One way for parents to alleviate symptoms of burnout is to make sure they’re getting enough time away from their children , experts say. “Parents often crave time alone” when suffering from parental burnout, Dr. Kennedy-Moore says. And this doesn't have to mean going for a long, leisurely stroll or going to see a movie alone. “Even if it’s a couple short, five-minute recovery breaks during the day where you do something for you. Simple things like that work,” Dr. Melnyk adds.
These short breaks should be centered on something the parent enjoys doing, Adriane Bennett, PhD, a psychiatrist and psychologist at Cleveland Clinic, tells SELF. This means putting your child down for a nap or letting them play or relax in a safe area, then taking a brief moment to do whatever interests you. For example, for some parents this could mean squeezing in a quick yoga session during naptime, knitting, journaling, working on a puzzle, or any other de-stressing activity the parent has found helpful in the past.
Connect with other people (especially other parents).
Social activities are just as important as alone time: Experts also advise speaking to other parents about parental burnout. “If you’re really feeling burnt out, go seek connection with another parent. My guess is they’re going to say, ‘Me too,’” Dr. Kennedy-Moore says. “Talk to someone you trust about how you’re feeling. So many parents are feeling the same way,” Dr. Melnyk adds.
Speaking with other parents can help eliminate feelings of shame and isolation for parents experiencing parental burnout, Dr. Bennett explains. Oftentimes, she says, parents going through this think, ‘There must be something wrong with me.’ Speaking with other people who know the feeling challenges the guilt associated with burnout, since when other people can relate to what we’re going through, it makes us feel less alone, Dr. Bennett says.
In addition to regularly touching base with people in similar situations, you may want to try a talk therapy session to see if it helps you de-stress, if you have the means. Therapists are in high demand right now, but there’s no harm in putting yourself on a provider’s waiting list, Dr. Bennett says. If you find another provider in the meantime, you can let them know you’re no longer interested and would like to be removed from the list.
“Because it’s just so hard to get in to see a therapist [right now], two things that can raise our positive energy are physical activity and social contact,” Dr. Kennedy-Moore says. Therefore, consider options that allow for both–for example hiking with other parents and their children. And if meetups aren’t an option at the moment–due to COVID-19 or any other reasons—remember that an evening stroll, bike ride, or even running around with your child in a nearby park—all count as physical activity.
Eliminate what you can.
When burnt out, parents should reevaluate their schedule and prioritize what matters most. “We need to question our standards: If it doesn’t matter to you, let it go.” For parents, this could mean checking your calendar and canceling what doesn’t feel essential. It’s crucial, Dr. Kennedy-Moore says, for parents to figure out what’s important to them and their family and what could be cut from the schedule or paused in order to create space for parental time alone.
Practice all of your go-to healthy habits.
During those intensely stressful times, it might be beneficial for parents to follow the advice they’re giving their children. Dr. Kennedy-Moore says that parents often make sure their kids are observing healthy lifestyle habits but they don’t hold themselves to the same standards, and this can take a toll on their well-being. Her advice to parents is to make sure they’re getting enough sleep , eating at regular mealtimes, and keeping track of their screen time .
When parents are using their phone or laptop, they should consider whether or not sites like Facebook and Instagram are helping or hurting them, Dr. Turner says. “It is important for parents to also recognize that it can be helpful to take breaks and unplug from social media ,” Dr. Turner explains. “Some research shows that increased consumption can have a negative impact on your mental health and increase stress.” If you think social media is starting to take up more of your attention than you’d like, or if you think it’s starting to negatively impact your mood, try staying logged out of social media sites on your computer and phone apps. That way you aren’t getting distracting alerts that coax you back onto the platform all day long. You could also try setting a timer to ensure you don’t spend more than, say, 20 minutes per day scrolling.
Try one of these free or low-cost options.
While some of the aforementioned options, like therapy and affordable access to childcare that would allow parents to have alone time, are ideal, they’re unfortunately not an option for many. There are, however, free and lower-cost options that may still help:
Open Door For Parents : A video series started by Dr. Kennedy-Moore which provides advice on parental burnout and similar topics, such as helping children cope with world events.
Mental health apps: Popular mental health apps like Sanvello , Calm , and Headspace offer stress-reduction techniques, meditations, and even bedtime stories to help you wind down at the end of the evening. Headspace also offers deep breathing exercises targeted at young children. (Dr. Turner notes that parents may be able to get Sanvello covered by their insurers, as well.)
Short grounding techniques and mindfulness exercises: Even short breaks can be helpful when things feel overwhelming. Here, we’ve rounded up eight grounding techniques you can try when you’re spiraling, or you can try this two-minute mindfulness exercise form Dr. Turner.
Guided journaling or workbooks: If writing down your thoughts and getting offline is more your speed, Dr. Turner suggests two books that may help— The Set Boundaries Workbook by Nedra Glover Tawwab and Zen as F*ck , a guided journal by Monica Sweeney. You can also check out these tips for starting a journal practice .
And if you’re extremely burned out, but nothing seems to help?
It’s essential to notice and alleviate symptoms when they’re still mild, so that parental burnout doesn’t become all-consuming, Dr. Melnyk says.
Having said that, we also obviously recognize that you can’t always meditate and deep breathe your way through tough times. If a parent becomes depressed, it’s important to seek help, frequently from a professional, Dr. Kennedy-Moore says.
And we get it: Like we mentioned earlier, finding a therapist right now is easier said than done, and may be inaccessible for many. “In my practice, I get as many as three phone calls a day from people who want to see a psychologist,” Dr. Kennedy-Moore says. “The mental health needs right now are huge.” Since it may take a while to find a therapist with an opening, a good first step could be turning to a doctor. “Talk to your primary care provider [who can refer you to] a mental health counselor,” Dr. Melnyk says.
You may also want to start with this guide to finding an affordable therapist .
The important thing, Dr. Melnyk stresses, is for parents to take action once they realize it’s affecting them. “Parents often think they’ve got to be superhuman, they’ve got to be good at everything they do,” she says. “[But] it is really a strength to recognize when you’re burnt out. It’s not a weakness. We’ve got to be more self-compassionate.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.