Parents on the Brink: Parental Burnout

When one thinks about burnout, one spontaneously thinks of job burnout. Images that come to mind often involve the over-burdened nurse or doctor, the over-stretched worker or the over-busy manager. Rarely do we think of overloaded parents. And yet, parents too can have too much on their plate. And they too can burn out when no one lifts their burden.

Although the notion of parental burnout dates back to the eighties, systematic research on parental burnout started only a decade ago. And it is probably fair to say that it remained relatively underground until the COVID crisis and the lockdown of parents with their children lifted the veil on the phenomenon.

Suddenly, many parents had a glimpse of what it would be like to be a burnout parent. For most of them, symptoms did not last long enough to bring them into burnout, but many did get a sense of what burnout could look like: this state of intense exhaustion where the mere thought of what to do for or with the children seems like a mountain, this state of saturation where you no longer want to be a parent, the resulting emotional disconnection from your children, and this guilt of no longer being the parent you were or wanted to be.

If you don’t have children, the following analogy might help. Imagine that you are a nurse with two patients. These patients are in a state of extreme dependency to you. And they are very demanding. Very. Their survival and development depend mostly on you and, even if no one ever told you so, you know that your most important mission in life is to take good care of these two patients. You have just a single colleague in this ward to help you with this, but you make a good team, you manage the patients’ demands, and the equipment to take care of them is functioning well. Imagine now your colleague being moved to another ward. Now you have to take care of these patients on your own. Or imagine that the patients become even more demanding. Or that their state starts deteriorating. Or a little of all this. Neither you nor your colleague knows what to do. You start blaming one another. There are tons of manuals about how equipment works and how to take care of patients, but no manual seems to contain the adequate care instructions for your equipment or your patients. You could call colleagues from other wards, but who knows if they would know better? Would you take the risk to call, knowing that they might think that you’re incompetent and criticize you behind your back? You could obviously call your supervisor, she certainly would have an opinion, but it has been 30 years since she’s taken care of a patient. And the equipment has evolved so much that pressing the button she suggests might actually do more harm than good. You don’t know what to do. You feel more and more exhausted and stressed with this job, there is more and more tension with your colleague about the patients, you start yelling at them – hysterically screaming at these ones you used to cherish –, you don’t recognize yourself. You cry from exhaustion and despair: If only you could take a break from them, or have someone replace you. But no one can replace you. And you can’t give up. Never. This is your life.

This is how parents in burnout feel. This is how one parent out of twenty (one per classroom!) feels at this very moment. According to a recently published international study, burnout world-wide is 5%, and that figure is twice as high in some Western countries (International Investigation of Parental Burnout [IIPB] Consortium, in press). And this was before the COVID and the lockdown, which presumably has increased the prevalence of parental burnout.

In a society that is currently facing so many challenges and crises (sanitary, environmental, economic, …), should we really care about parents’ burnout? Mounting scientific evidence suggests that we should, for at least three reasons:

  • Parental burnout severely increases chronic neuroendocrine activation (Brianda, Roskam et al., 2020; Brianda, Roskam & Mikolajczak, 2020) and allostatic load, which is known to decrease the body’s ability to defend against viruses and pathogens. At a time where immunity is key, this effect should not be underestimated.
  • Parental burnout increases the risk of child neglect and/or violence against one’s children (Mikolajczak et al., 2019; Mikolajczak et al., 2020), much more so than close disorders (Szczygiel et al., 2020). Our qualitative or clinical encounters with these parents suggest that severe exhaustion can even render violent parents who have never been violent before and who are philosophically opposed to violence. And this is hardly surprising considering that parental burnout increases cortisol levels up to twice that of control parents (Brianda et al., 2020), and that cortisol is known to fuel anger and harsh parenting practices.
  • Parental burnout increases suicidal ideations, much more so than does depression (Mikolajczak et al., 2019; Mikolajczak et al., 2020) — although it is a diagnostic criterion of the latter. This is not surprising considering that parents in burnout often have the feeling that they are stuck with the source of their suffering, with no place to hide or seek comfort except for death. If burnout has brought about neglect or violence, it is likely that the latter also participate to suicidal urges.

As the foregoing suggests, parental burnout is a serious disorder that deserves attention. Given the severity of its consequences for both parents and children, preventive steps should be taken at both individual and societal levels.

Reference Articles

Mikolajczak, M., Gross, J.J., & Roskam, I. (2019). Parental burnout: What is it and why does it matter? Clinical Psychological Science, 7, 1319-1329.

Mikolajczak, M., Gross, J.J., Stinglhamber, F., Lindhal-Norberg, A. & Roskam, I. (2020). Is parental burnout different from job burnout and depressive symptomatology? Clinical Psychological Science, 8, 673-689.

Discussion Questions

  1. In your opinion, how do the above-mentioned consequences of burnout relate to each other? For example, do you think there is a link between parental violence and suicidal urges?
  2. What is the most important therapeutical attitude to adopt with a parent in burn out or at the verge of burning out?
  3. In order to prevent the occurrence of parental burnout, what could be done at the individual, familial and societal levels?
  4. Do you think that (social) media play a role in parental burnout? If yes, how could they be used to reverse the process?

About the Authors

Moïra Mikolajczak, Ph.D., is Professor of Health and Medical Psychology at UClouvain, Belgium, and co-director of the Parental Burnout Research Lab, a leading laboratory in the study of parental burnout. Moïra can be contacted at moira.mikolajczak@uclouvain.be.

Isabelle Roskam, Ph.D., is Professor of Developmental Psychology at UClouvain, Belgium, and co-director of the Parental Burnout Research Lab, a leading laboratory in the study of parental burnout. Isabelle can be contacted at isabelle.roskam@uclouvain.be.

James Gross, Ph.D., is Professor Psychology at Stanford University, and Director of the Stanford Psychophysiology Laboratory, where he and his team study emotion and emotion regulation. James can be contacted at gross@stanford.edu.

References Cited

Brianda, M.E., Roskam, I., Gross, J.J., Franssen, A., Kapala, F., Gérard, F., Mikolajczak, M. (2020). Treating Parental Burnout: Impact of Two Treatment Modalities on Burnout Symptoms, Emotions, Hair Cortisol, and Parental Neglect and Violence. Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, 20, 330-332.

Brianda, M.E., Roskam, I. & Mikolajczak, M. (2020). Hair cortisol concentration as biomarker for parental burnout. Psychoneuroendocrinology.

International Investigation of Parental Burnout (IIPB) Consortium (in press). Parental Burnout around the globe: a 42-country study. Affective Science.

Mikolajczak, M., Gross, J.J., & Roskam, I. (2019). Parental burnout: What is it and why does it matter? Clinical Psychological Science, 7, 1319-1329.

Mikolajczak, M., Gross, J.J., Stinglhamber, F., Lindhal-Norberg, A. & Roskam, I. (2020). Is parental burnout different from job burnout and depressive symptomatology? Clinical Psychological Science, 8, 673-689.

Szczygiel, D., Sekulowicz, M., Kwiatkowski, P., Roskam, I. & Mikolajczak, M. (2020). Validation of the Polish Version of the Parental Burnout Assessment (PBA). New Directions in Child and Adolescent Development, 174.

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