Parents are under a lot of extra stress right now. Nine weeks into lockdown, with the pressures of home learning, work, family life, and not being able to see friends & extended family, cases of parental burnout are on the rise. This relatively new concept in Australia is more than just stress and fatigue, and the consequences for families can be severe. Psychologist Hélène Gatland explains exactly what Parental Burnout is, and how you can recognise it and get the support you need.
Widely studied in the French-speaking world since 2017, Parental Burnout is a relatively new concept in Australia. Major symptoms include exhaustion from the parental role, overload and loss of pleasure from parenting, and emotional distancing from one’s children.
I was constantly trying to be the best parent I could but now I am so tired, often in autopilot or overwhelmed, so far away from what I wanted to be.
Having worked internationally as a psychologist, family coach, childcare educator, and nanny, I have often heard the above sentiments from parents.
It is common for parenting to be demanding at times, but the additional stresses of lockdown, including home schooling and varied routines, has led to a rise in a troubling syndrome known as Parental Burnout.
What is Parental Burnout?
Parental Burnout affects those exposed to parental stress without the resources to cope with that stress. Symptoms include:
- exhaustion from the parental role
- overload and loss of pleasure from parenting
- emotional distancing from your children
It is important to note that Parental Burnout is more than just stress and fatigue. A crucial aspect of Parental Burnout is the contrast between how a parent is and how they used to be. They often describe themselves as being a shadow of themselves and this can result in a sense of guilt or shame.
Is Parental Burnout a new syndrome?
The first account of the term “Parental Burnout” dates back to 1983. However, it was not until 2017 that the syndrome was intensively studied by Belgium researchers Dr Isabelle Roskam and Dr Moïra Mikolajczak. Their findings suggest that parental burnout is more prevalent in the 21st century for a range of reasons.
Thanks to contraception and assisted reproductive technology (ART), we now have the benefit of forward planning when it comes to families – to have children at optimal times or not at all. Pregnancy is a more conscious decision that comes with a heightened sense of responsibility. In the case of ART, it also often comes at a significant cost, both financially and emotionally. Having made the decision to start a family, parents often feel uncomfortable discussing the challenges of parenting and asking for help.
Over the years, gender roles have also changed. Where women were once solely responsible for domestic duties, they also now form part of the workforce. At the same time, where men were traditionally the sole income-earners, they now share an active role in the home. This change of dynamic requires that parents develop a set of skills that they may not have been exposed to during their upbringing.
The 20th century saw growing interest from the medical community in children’s development, including the effects of various parenting styles. The mountain of often conflicting information now available to parents can be confusing and overwhelming and can be a cause of distress for many.
What are the risk factors?
While causes of Parental Burnout vary between families, an international investigation led by Drs Roskam and Mikolajczak suggests that there are common risk factors.
- Difficulty dealing with stressful situations
- A desire to be a “perfect parent”
- Difficulty delegating parental responsibilities
- Being a full-time parent
- Lack of consistency in parenting style
- Caring for a child with a disability
Of course, add in a global pandemic, and it’s safe to assume many parents are at risk of burnout from these testing circumstances that they have been thrown into.
Coping with Parental Burnout
The good news is that there are scientifically proven methods to reduce stress associated with Parental Burnout to normal levels in less than three months. Here are a few tips for parents facing lockdown:
Introduce a routine
Rather than multitasking, prioritise one activity at a time. Schedule these in advance and ensure your children understand the new routine and expectations of them. This will enable your family to enjoy quality time together, with time separately dedicated to work and other responsibilities.
Lower your expectations
Lower your expectations and adjust your parenting style to the ‘new norm’ of COVID-19. This means letting go of previously held standards that are unrealistic to achieve during lockdown. Don’t aim for perfection, all you need is to be “good enough”.
Ask those around you for help, including your children. Be creative, the support you need may be right in front of you. This extends to your mental wellbeing. If needed, reach for a professional earlier rather than later.
Hélène Gatland holds a Master of Psychology specialising in child and adolescent development and is the only Australian to be certified by the Training Institute for Parental Burnout. She also holds a Diploma of Children’s Services.
Hélène’s experience with families is extremely varied having worked internationally as a psychologist, family coach, childcare educator, and nanny. Hélène has received several industry awards, the most prestigious being Family Day Care Australia’s Educator of the Year Award for NSW/ACT. In addition, her work was formally recognised by the Parliament of NSW in 2019 and again in 2021.