Susan* was exhausted. She had been prioritising her children’s well-being above her own to the extent that she had become increasingly overwhelmed. To her that was normal. She had high expectations for herself as a parent, and wanted to provide the best for her children. But she was distressed when she realised she felt resentment towards her children, that they were “trapping” her, and were the reason she had lost her freedom.
Yen* noticed herself being more irritable towards her children and adopting harsher parenting strategies. Juggling between parenting and working full-time from home, she did not have any downtime for herself. Additionally, she and her husband had different parenting approaches, leading to increased conflicts between them. She started to realise how much she had on her plate as she listed out her stressors.
If you see yourself in these two mums, you are not alone. Across the globe, up to 10 per cent of parents suffer from parental burnout. This condition happens when parents do not have enough resources to help them cope with the demands of parenting over a prolonged period of time.
Stress is part and parcel of the parenting experience. We have good and bad days, and generally cope adequately with the demanding role of being a parent. However, given that the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the demands of parenting while reducing the resources available to parents to manage, parental burnout needs to be acknowledged, and addressed.
Ms Law Ya Wen, a clinical psychologist at the Community Psychology Hub, an agency supported by Ministry of Social and Family Development, tells us more, and how we can deal with it.
How different is parental burnout from other kinds of burnout?
You are probably familiar with the term job burnout. Both job burnout and parental burnout happen when a person does not have enough resources to meet demands over a long period of time. However they have different consequences.
Parental burnout is distinctively associated with the inability to attend fully to the emotional and physical needs of the children. Some parents may find it difficult to manage their own emotions such as frustration and anger, and may unintentionally take it out on their children.
Feelings of being trapped are also more pronounced in parental burnout. Parents do not have paid vacations away from their child. Neither do they have the option to resign from their roles. Hence, they are more likely to experience a higher desire to ‘escape’ as compared to individuals with job burnout.
Parental Burnout in Singapore
While there is no local data, we know that parenting in Singapore is rife with stressors. Parents place high emphasis on their children’s achievements, and enrol their children in multiple enrichment classes or sports activities.
This leads to harassed and time-poor parents whose role is to ferry their overscheduled children from class to class or practice to practice, while ensuring that they keep up with school and tuition homework.
(Of course, you could say that the parents bring this upon themselves. If they were not so concerned about societal notions of achievement, parenting would be less stressful, no? Perhaps what’s needed is a re-framing of the concept of success, but that’s another story for another time.)
On top of this, parents may also be responsible for the care of their own parents, while holding full-time jobs. To meet these demands, parents may end up working long hours, over-stretch their resources, and inevitably neglect themselves in the process.
The guilt and stress of parental burnout
There is also a stigma for seeking help due to parenting stress. Parents often feel ashamed and guilty about being burnt out. They hide what they are going through and do not reach out for practical and emotional support. They may even reject offers of help when offered.
Fortunately, it is possible to prevent parental burnout or to manage it if it happens.
The first step? Understand and become aware of your mental/emotional well-being as a parent. If you notice difficulties, seek help early to prevent issues from snowballing. Increase your skills and resources in dealing with your stressors and learn how to resolve conflicts effectively.
Evaluate what is truly important to you, versus what may be nice to have. Decisively drop commitments that are not essential to the family.
Finally, give yourself permission to get help. During safety briefing on airplanes, the flight attendant instructs you to put your own oxygen mask on before helping others. This is because if you try to help someone else get their mask on before you put yours on, there is a possibility that both of you will pass out from the lack of oxygen. However, if you put your mask on first, you will be able to focus on helping others who may need your help.
We all have ‘oxygen masks’ in our own life – our energy, time, and emotional well-being. By filling our own tanks first, we will be able to use our reserves to better help others, in this case, our children.
Symptoms to look out for
- Overwhelming or chronic physical and emotional exhaustion related to parenting. You feel tired when you get up in the morning, and may dread the idea of having to face another day with your children.
- Emotional distancing from your children. You become less and less involved in parenting, and your interactions may be limited to functional aspects of care-giving, like making meals and putting the children to bed.
- Loss of accomplishment in your parental role. You may become frustrated with parenting, and sometimes not wish to be a parent anymore. Additionally, you may no longer enjoy being with your children.
For the individual parent, persistent low moods, thoughts about wanting to ‘escape it all’, an increase in addictive behaviours, and sleep and health problems could indicate burnout. For the couple, there may be an increase in the frequency and intensity of conflict.
Children may also pick up on and be emotionally affected by their parents’ mood and conflicts, although they may not understand what their parents are going through. In response, they may become anxious, guilty or upset. Hence if parental burnout is not addressed, there may be poorer mental health within the family.
You can use this online Parental Burnout Assessment to assess if you are experiencing parental burnout.
Who is most susceptible?
If you strive to be the perfect parent, and place a strong sense of pressure on yourself, you are probably more vulnerable to parental burnout.
Having impossibly high standards and not being able to live up to aspirations of being the perfect parent may lead to a sense of failure, self-hate, guilt, and shame.
Single parents, those caring for children with special needs, or caring for multiple younger children and juggling work and parenting have a higher risk of experiencing parental burnout.
Other factors that increase the risk of parental burnout include unemployment, financial insecurity, and lack of support from family and friends. Conversely, being in a nurturing, happy, and satisfying marriage can help to reduce parental burnout.
Parental burnout affects both genders, but tends to be more common among mothers as women are usually more involved in caregiving.
6 ways to avoid parental burnout
Burnout is the result of too many demands with limited resources to cope. Hence one of the best ways to prevent parental burnout is to reduce demands, and increase resources.
Ways to reduce demands:
- Make small changes. While we often see big issues as our main stressors, it’s often the smaller tasks that add up. For example, if you have been feeling overwhelmed by household chores, ask your spouse or even your child for help.
- Stop saying “should”. By telling yourself that you “should” spend more time playing with your kids, you will put unnecessary pressure on yourself. Instead, try swapping your “should” statement with “I will try to spend more time playing with my kids.”
- Take short breaks. Self-care does not need to take long. Even tiny breaks can be helpful. Spend five minutes alone in a room to take deep breaths, or take a 15-minute walk.
Ways to increase resources:
- Talk about it. Sharing about what you are going through with a trusted person can help you emotionally.
- Find meaning. When you notice yourself feeling detached from something you care about, it can be helpful to reconnect with your personal values and remember what is important to you.
- Accept help. This could be getting your spouse or child involved in daily chores, or professional counselling to target problem areas or learn parenting skills.
If you suspect that you have (or a friend of mine has) parental burnout…
Seek help early. Talk to a trusted person or a professional. To support a friend, start the conversation by reflecting on how he/she may be feeling. “You seem to be really distressed recently, what’s going on?”.
Listen to what your friend is saying and validate his/her emotions and experiences. “It sounds like you are taking on so many responsibilities, anyone in your position would be feeling stressed!”.
Ask what kind of help or support would be the most helpful.
Actively offer help or encourage your friend to seek support, be it for more personal space, fewer chores, or a listening ear.
You can also access these community resources:
- The Families for Life (FFL) website and Facebook page have a repository of resources that cover topics on parenting.
- Ten Parenting Support Providers (PSPs) appointed by the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) to deliver parenting support services.
*not her real name
Ya Wen is a clinical psychologist. She has a Masters in Clinical Psychology and is part of the CPH Online Counselling Team.