Parental Burnout: Understanding the Top Five Warning Signs

Looking back at 2020 I don’t believe anyone could have predicted just how challenging the year would be and how it would take all of our collective resilience and flexibility to try and navigate it as best we can.  With so many challenges and uncertainties, the year saw unprecedented changes in the way we live.  From the transition to working from home, the need to restrict our day-to-day activities to supporting our children both with home schooling and with increased anxieties, we’ve all had to dig deep into our emotional reserves to even try to keep still, let alone moving forward.  However, with these worries also came perpetual hope that we would see light at the end of this unchartered tunnel and as the year draw to an end, the freshly anticipated new start of 2021.  It was like we thought that all the problems of 2020 would magically melt away; but the truth is we still need to take each day at a time. 

Busy father juggling childcare and household chores.

I will always promote for looking for the positives, for being grateful and challenging negative thinking. These skills will definitely boost our mood and build resilience, but we also need to know when we are exhausted and heading towards “burnout”. Studies have shown that when parents suffer parental burnout, they ironically become the parent they are wanting to avoid. They find that they distance themselves from their children in an attempt to restore themselves.

Sadly, this damages the relationships around them and causes more parenting struggles. The struggles then compound the parent’s burnout, and the pattern continues. The study also found that parental burnout can eventually lead to parental abuse and neglect (Moïra Mikolajczak, James J. Gross, Isabelle Roskam, 2019)

We know that to help our children to manage their emotions they need a calm adult to regulate with them and work through the difficulty together. We all know that when we have had minimal sleep or we are at “breaking point” from over commitments, our tolerance levels are reduced. We become just as reactive as our kids and end up modelling the behaviour that we desperately want them to STOP.

What is Burnout?

Burnout is a state of emotional, mental, and often physical exhaustion brought on by prolonged or repeated stress. That was pretty much the definition of 2020. The stress can be from anything, work, relationships and even day-to-day parenting. The problem isn’t the intensity of the stress, it is the duration. When you feel like there is no end, you can only last so long before you burnout. The symptoms of burnout can vary. Most of the research has been related to work burnout, but there are some universal symptoms that you may notice for any burnout:

Infographic showing symptoms of parental burnout

  • Becoming frustrated and cynical: When we are at our limit for stress our tolerance will become lower. You may find that you are snapping at people more often or that your view of the world has become darker. It is okay to have days like this, but if there has been a prolonged change in your mood then you are likely burned out.
  • Exhaustion: Burnout brings an intense exhaustion that no amount of sleep seems to cure. There is a heaviness that doesn’t seem to leave. The exhaustion seems to fill every part of your being; physical, mental and emotional.
  • Low motivation/energy: You notice that your willingness to do things has evaporated. Activities that you use to do with enthusiasm now just seem too hard. An example of this for me was Christmas. I have always loved Christmas, I love decorating, buying or making presents, I love everything about it. But Christmas 2020 just seemed too hard. I had to make myself put up the tree and I found myself wishing for it to be over.
  • Reduced compassion: When we are depleted, there is literally nothing left to give anyone else. It isn’t that we don’t care, it is just that we can’t spare any more compassion for others. There is a numbness that comes with burnout. Things that once evoked a response now just passes us by.
  • Reduced productivity: When your motivation has gone you find that you do the bare minimum just to get by. This can be with work but it can also be with relationships and even parenting. When you don’t have emotional energy for yourself it is very hard to help your child with their often-overwhelming emotions.

All of these symptoms seem very similar to Depression. However, there are a few important differences. Depression will usually also include poor self-esteem, intense hopelessness and possible suicidal thoughts. Depression is a serious condition and needs to be treated by a professional.

Stressed father holding his head in his hands


So, what do we do if we are heading towards burnout or we are already burned?

Basically, you need to do what helps you feel restored. A holiday is great but that is only a short-term solution. You need to put regular habits in place that help you feel better in yourself. Ultimately, if it fills your cup, then do it because this will fundamentally help you and everyone around you.

But there is another benefit of practicing self-care. By modelling self-care for ourselves, we are teaching our children that they also need to care for themselves. We are showing them that it is okay to say “no” to things when you are feeling overwhelmed, that you need to eat well and exercise, that we need to do things that make us “light up” make life enjoyable. Self-care can have the same effects in maintaining your child’s mental and physical health as it does for you. After all, surely, we want our kids to grow into adults who know how to set boundaries, have health relationships, are able to care for themselves physically and emotionally?

Burnout prevention:

Infographic detailing burnout prevention techniques


  • Self-care: is more than just bubble baths and manicures, although though these can be good too. It is anything that helps us to feel restored rather than taking from us. What makes one person feel “refueled” will be different for another. For some having the house tidy is really important and they prioritise this. For others it’s having time to be creative and paint, it really is different for everyone.
  • Getting to grips with the basics: It is so important not to neglect the basics. Sleep, eating well, exercise and having regular health checks are often overlooked when it comes to self-care.
  • It’s ok to Say ‘No’: One of the best ways that we can care about ourselves mentally is to learn to say “no”. We need to recognise what are our boundaries that keep us feeling like we are coping well and stick to that. This might mean not answering the phone during dinner, not emailing between certain times of the day, saying no to extra commitments.
  • Connect: You could be someone who recharges by connecting with your friends. If you feel “human” again after spending time with your friends, even virtually, then this your clue that you need to make time for this.
  • Making time for Relaxation: Learning to relax and calm ourselves will benefit every aspect of our lives. You could do this by doing a few minutes of slow controlled breathing, it could be having a gratitude journal to help you to reflect on the positives in your life or it could be getting up before anyone else to have that time of peace and quiet.
  • Restore focus: Often isn’t what we are doing that causes burnout, it is just the constant drudgery of it that seems to suck the life out of us. Sometimes if we take some time to sit back and think about why we are doing what we are doing, it can help us find the motivation we had lost. Constant parenting managing emotional outbursts, teaching and guiding is exhausting. But when we realise that our goal is to raise emotionally stable people, we start to see the purpose of it all again. Work or other commitments have sent you on the road to burnout. Work out why you are doing them. Do you still have the same goals and values? Can you change things so that you have more purpose in what you are doing?
  • Find a Passion: When you are burned out, you need to reignite the fire somehow. This doesn’t mean a new job necessarily; it might be finding a new hobby or interest. What do you love and how can you do it more? If you are burned out you will probably have limited motivation for even this, but you know yourself. Do what you know you have always loved and wait and see if this will restore you to who you know you really are.


Happy and relaxed mother and son

Burnout can create a downward spiral. If we are stressed and overwhelmed, we can't be empathetic and patient parents. This can then cause us to feel guilty. Taking care of ourselves helps us to be the best parent and role model that we can be. On top of this we will be teaching our kids the importance of self-care and gives them coping strategies for life.


Want to keep learning? Find more articles from Krysten Taprell - The Therapist Parent:

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