Breaking the Taboo of Parental Burnout: Myths vs. Reality

Overwhelmed mother

In this blog post, we’ll delve into the taboo of parental burnout, exploring the myths and the importance of breaking the silence.

As the World Health Organization (WHO) has included burnout as a syndrome in its International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), defining it as ‘a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed’, the concept of job burnout has gained increasing recognition and acceptance. This recognition marks a significant step towards destigmatising job-related burnout and providing support for individuals struggling with its effects.

However, amidst this progress, a glaring taboo remains largely unaddressed: parental burnout. Despite its prevalence and profound impact on families, not much research was available before 2017 and parental burnout is not yet widely recognised or understood.

Parenthood is often romanticised as the epitome of joy, love, and fulfilment. However, beneath the surface lies a reality that many parents face but few openly discuss: parental burnout. It affects mums and dads alike, yet it remains shrouded in myths and misconceptions that only perpetuate the stigma surrounding this prevalent issue.

Let’s explore 7 typical myths surrounding parental burnout!

Reality: While it is true that mothers are at a higher risk of developing parental burnout, as they tend to carry most of the mental load of parenting and have more contact with the child(ren), paternal burnout is also a significant concern.

According to a study published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies, approximately 12% of fathers experience symptoms of parental burnout.

Reality: While it is true that parenting young children can be particularly stressful given the intense care and supervision they require, parental burnout can occur at any stage of parenthood. Young children need feeding, changing, supervision and a lot of attention and sleeping difficulties often mean that physical exhaustion is a strong component. Older children require less intense care, but their level of maturity, independence and risk-taking can be prominent parental stressors leading to emotional exhaustion.

A study published in Frontiers in Psychology found that parental burnout is prevalent among parents of children of all ages, with no significant difference between parents of young children and those of older children.

Myth #3: Parental burnout is an invention of the 21st century 

I believe parental burnout has always existed – as parents have always suffered from overwork and exhaustion – but there wasn’t a term describing what they were feeling. What has changed in my view, is that there is now research on the topic, the term parental burnout is slowly becoming known and there is more openness around discussing mental health, all contributing to a higher likelihood of diagnosis.

There are also societal changes that have happened in modern times, which may be contributing to increased parental burnout rates (which I’ll pick up in a future blog post).

Myth #4: Parental burnout only affects parents of ‘hard-to-manage children’ 

Reality: While parenting challenges can exacerbate burnout, parental burnout can occur in families regardless of their children’s behaviour. So if you are finding parenting hard even if you have a healthy, generally well-behaved child that does not present any particular developmental issues, keep in mind that the characteristics of the parent (such as perfectionism, difficulties with stress management and asking for help, etc.) are key risk factors and contributors to parental burnout, as well as external stressors (work situation, family constellation etc.)

Myth #5: Single parents are more at risk of parental burnout. 

Reality: While single parenthood can certainly present unique challenges, parental burnout can affect parents in various family structures. A study conducted by researchers at the University of Southern California found that single parents are not inherently more susceptible to burnout compared to partnered parents.

Having a partner doesn’t mean that you are sharing the parenting load effectively and a multitude of stressors can overwhelm even a well-working co-parenting team. Single parenthood is just one of many risk factors and alone will not lead to burnout. However, it often comes with other risk factors such as less ‘me-time’, increased mental load, fewer financial resources etc.

Myth #6: Parents from disadvantaged backgrounds are more at risk of parental burnout

Reality: Socioeconomic status can impact parenting stress, but parental burnout transcends socioeconomic boundaries. Research published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies suggests that while socioeconomic factors can contribute to parental stress, burnout is influenced by a complex interplay of individual, familial, and societal factors. However, we see that parental burnout tends to happen to the more educated and affluent parents.

Myth #7: Parents who work a lot are at a much higher risk of parental burnout. 

Reality: While work-life balance can influence parental well-being, excessive workload is not the sole determinant of parental burnout. A study published in the Journal of Family Issues found that while work-related stress can contribute to parental burnout, factors such as parental expectations, coping strategies, and social support also play significant roles.

In fact, rates of parental burnout are higher in parents working part-time or staying at home, as they are more exposed to the stressors of parenting and less to the benefits of out-of-the-home work, such as social and financial recognition, sense of achievement etc. Stay-at-home parents tend to feel particularly guilty when exhausted as caring for their children is ‘all they have to do’ (and they think it shouldn’t feel so hard).

In conclusion, parental burnout is a multifaceted issue that can affect parents from all walks of life. This is particularly important to understand when you are wondering whether you ‘have the right’ to feel so exhausted because you feel you don’t fit the stereotypical image of a burned-out parent.

I truly hope that by dispelling the myths and understanding the realities of parental burnout, we can foster a culture of empathy, support, and resilience for all parents.

Dealing with parental burnout alone can be incredibly challenging, but it’s important to remember that there is a way out.

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