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Parental burnout is on the rise: here are 5 ways to avoid it

Did you know 8 out of 10 British parents are burning out? Here, Dr Emma Svanberg, an award-winning clinical psychologist and the author of Parenting for Humans, gives five small but significant steps to fix it.

Dr Emma Svanberg
lllustration: Matt Murphy for Penguin

How are you? Have you been wondering what’s wrong with you? Maybe you’re just tired? Or stressed? Is it anxiety? Depression?

If you’re a parent, it’s quite likely to be burnout. The prevalence of parental burnout has dramatically increased due to the Covid-19 pandemic and its associated stresses. So, it’s very likely that it’s contributing to how you’re feeling right now.

Burnout happens when the stress that we are under becomes greater than the resources we have to deal with it. The concept was previously used only in work contexts but, since 2014, researchers have understood that parenting can lead to burnout, too. It is more common in women, and much more common in countries like the UK where we set high standards for our parenting, while parenting in isolation from others.

If you are feeling burnt out, please remember: You can feel lighter again. This is not your fault. You are not failing.

Let’s just pause here. Did you feel any sense of relief, having what you’re going through named? Perhaps you didn’t feel much at all, because you’re so used to being in autopilot. Or maybe it brought up some emotion in you – grief, or sadness, or anger. Whatever you’re feeling right now, notice that. Because part of the journey of healing from burnout is noticing what it is doing to you.

If you’re feeling burnt out, here are five ways you can begin to recover:

Understand what burnout is

Parental burnout isn’t just feeling tired of parenting, or in need of a break, or noticing that you have a short fuse (although all of those things can be signs of it). Parental burnout is the sort of deep, bone-aching exhaustion that you wake up with, a feeling of needing to distance from your children, finding it hard to feel joy in your parenting and a clear sense that you are not the parent you want to be.

This is not your fault. You are not failing.

What is so, so tricky about parental burnout (in contrast to work-related burnout) is that you can’t get the respite you need to begin recovering from it. And, because children seek closeness to us when things are feeling stressful, they get clingy or challenging when we try to distance ourselves. Which leaves us even more depleted, and leads to a vicious cycle that can feel impossible to break.

Because burnout happens when your resources are depleted, criticising yourself will only deplete them more, so instead of asking ‘What’s wrong with me?’ try asking ‘What have I been through?’ When you acknowledge just how much you have weathered, you might look upon your burnout with more compassion.

Rest

What we tend to do when we’re out of steam is look for a solution. Or lots of solutions: maybe a new exercise regime, or eating plan, or to get up before the kids to meditate. But when we’re suffering from burnout, what we need more than anything is to just… stop.

I don’t mean going to bed early, or watching Netflix, or having dinner with your friends. I’m talking about deep rest for your mind and body. Phone off, little sensory stimulation, settling your body into recovery. Our go-to restoration activities often stress our already taxed nervous systems, so think about how you can bring your body out of survival mode by significantly slowing down, starting right now.

Question your expectations

Parenting isn’t easy. It is, in fact, one of the most challenging tasks of adult life. And none of us expected to parent 24/7 during a global pandemic, possibly while schooling and working at the same time, not to mention managing the invisible pandemic threat. Parenting now, in a cost of living crisis, presents new challenges: a 24-hour news cycle bombarding us with bad news, in addition to children who are really only now showing the impact of the last few years. Our resources have been challenged to the max.

If we are going to prevent burnout from recurring, we need to seriously ask ourselves what we can let go of. Being in a stressed-out state brings a sense of urgency – everything feels crucial. But once we start to let go of things, and find our resources filling up again, it becomes easier to let go of more.

You come first

Parental burnout leads to feeling disconnected from our children. We can desperately try to make up for that but, because we are depleted, even enjoyable activities can be draining. Before attempting any sort of reconnection, replenish yourself first.

Only then, think about how you want to reconnect with your children. This might be difficult (this is why it’s so important that you feel restored first), because they may have some strong feelings to express about how your burnout has impacted them. If you’re able to embrace those feelings, then you can move forward together.

Rediscover the joy in your parenting

Parenting is tough, and these last few years may have been arduous. But what is always there is the relationship between you and your child, or children. You could ask yourself the following questions to help you reconnect: What do you see in them that others don’t know about? What makes them uniquely them? Your joy may not come from doing activities together, but simply being in each other’s company.

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