Parental burnout is a real thing.
I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that, though.
We all make sacrifices when we have kids. We may cut back on nights out with friends or on date nights. Suddenly, squeezing in the gym is harder than before.
For many parents, you spend less time enjoying the hobbies you had pre-child… or you may cut them out altogether.
Unfortunately, this tendency to sacrifice everything for our kids results in parental burnout.
Because most parents have experienced burnout at some point or another, we don’t realize how serious it can become.
The Five Stages of Parental Burnout
According to Parent Burnout, by Joseph Procaccini and Mark Kiefaber, burnout actually happens in five progressive stages, each more stressful and destructive than the one before.
The first can be called the Gung-Ho stage, which can start when the parents first discover they’re pregnant and can continue for years. In this stage, Mom or Dad is determined to do everything themselves and is often hesitant to leave the kids with anyone, ever. This stage is often characterized by a fixation on child-rearing.
Very subtly, though, parents can move to the second stage of burnout, which is characterized by persistent doubts.
Parents recognize that something is not right but often don’t realize how quickly they are losing altitude. They may find that they’re frequently irritated by the children and catch themselves periodically screaming at them. They often feel drained and fatigued, and there are a full range of symptoms that can come and go, including back and neck aches, upset stomach, headaches and hypertension.
The third stage is the transition stage, because decisions are usually made during this period that will determine the well-being of the family for years to come.
During this stage, parents hopefully recognize the downward path they’re on and make changes to alter the course they’re on. If they don’t, they’ll continue in their plunge towards chaos. Parents at this stage often experience indescribable fatigue, self-condemnation, anger and resentment.
If parents don’t turn back at this point, they continue on to the fourth stage, which is called pulling away.
At this stage, the person withdraws to the point of being unavailable. The parent may not hear the kids, even if the kids are pulling on them and begging for attention. The parent may overreact to minor accidents and can even slip into alcoholism or drug abuse. At this stage, the parents often experience extreme guilt, self-loathing or disappointment in life.
And then finally they reach the fifth stage, referred to as chronic disenchantment. At this stage, life has lost meaning and the individual no longer feels there is a purpose in living. Their thoughts may be on suicide or running away. Sexual desire has gone and the marriage is in serious trouble.
The fourth stage is called pulling away. The person withdraws from the family and becomes unavailable to the kids. The mother may not even hear the kids, even as they beg her for attention, literally pulling at her clothes. She may overreact to minor incidents or slip into alcoholism or drug abuse to dull her senses. Parents at this stage are often physically and psychologically exhausted, guilt-ridden and experiencing self-hatred or disappointment in life.
The final, fifth, stage is called chronic disenchantment. At this stage, the individual has lost all meaning and purpose in living. Identity is blurred, sexual desire gone and the marriage seriously troubled. The individual’s thoughts may be on suicide or running away.
How to Avoid Parental Burnout
Now, I’m certainly not suggesting that every parent who starts to feel burnout is going to continue on that self-destructive path until the end. In fact, I would say that parents who have experienced burnout (and I would say most parents have at some point) make changes pretty quickly.
That said, there are things you can do in order to be proactive about avoiding burnout.
And while the following recommendations may seem like a luxury you don’t have time for, remember that both your spouse and your children will benefit from you focusing on your own well-being. You can’t give what you don’t have. And if you’re feeling depleted, reacting to your kids with patience and love will be a big challenge.
I recently chatted with Sean Grover, a therapist for parents and kids, about what parents can do to avoid parental burnout.
“If You’re not taking care of yourself. You’re not going to take care of your partner very well… and no child wants a burnt-out parent. That’s a burden…
I want every parent to have some sort of physical tension outlet. That means they have to start exercising. Taking a dance class, making it fun.
Once you become a parent and you start to neglect these parts of yourself, people start to feel worse. Their moods are not as stable and a 30-minute workout three times a week cuts anxiety and depression by up to 70%…
I know when I became a parent I gained about 35 pounds. I look at those old pictures and I just can’t imagine I walked around in that kind of shape and I had all kinds of problems back problems neck problems, so the first thing is tension outlets.
Esteem Building Activities
“That means something you do that does not fit your role as a mother or father, as a partner or a spouse, as a wife or a husband. Something that’s uniquely yours that’s creative.
I ran a group many years ago for mothers who were really struggling in their role with their kids. And they would come together every week and complain and complain and complain, and one day, someone said ‘I’m tired of complaining. I want my life back.’ So we changed the culture of the group and I gave them all an assignment. I asked them to think about what they gave up when they became a parent and is there some way they could recapture that part of themselves. So one woman started playing the violin again, a woman started boxing, which was like a dream of hers.
And gradually they changed the name of the group from a mother support group to the wild woman group. And… the daughter said it was super cool to go see her mother box and take her friends to see.”
Maintain Quality Friendships
“The kind of friends you have can really affect how you see your life. So, we want to ask people, if you have lunch with a friend and you’re feeling drained or feeling irritated or feeling disappointed, chances are you’ve got to consider whether that relationship may or may not be good for you.”
Mindfulness “doesn’t have to be yoga and meditation. Certainly, those are wonderful things, but just building more mindfulness into their day. I see people on the treadmill at the gym in the morning, everyone’s texting and got music on and watching television.
It’s as if we can’t spend the moment alone with our own thoughts.
So mindfulness is really just exploring what your thoughts and feelings are and what really influences your choices, because these things are operating all the time.”
Go on Personal Adventures (Alone or with Your Partner)
“When was the last time you went to a concert? When was the last time you went to a gallery somewhere?…
These are the things, when we start sacrificing ourselves for our kids, we start putting off our own needs for our kids’ needs. It really affects that relationship, because the child begins to look at the parent, and you’re not modeling a very happy, satisfied life, and children almost feel burdened by that.
A lot of children in my office have said they wonder if their parents would be happy if they weren’t born, that somehow them coming into their life made them unhappier.”
Final Thoughts on Avoiding Parental Burnout
Remember, parental burnout can happen to most parents at some point. The key is to be proactive about taking care of yourself so that it doesn’t go beyond the second stage or burnout described above.
If you’re happy and your individual needs are being met, you’ll be a better partner and a better parent.
As Sean points out, if parents “take better care of themselves individually, then they [can] come together and have a conversation about [what could be adjusted] in their relationship or what works and what doesn’t work. But if they’re both burned out and [they] start that conversation then it’s going to be an uphill battle.”
The five steps for avoiding parental burnout are:
- Esteem Building Activities
- Maintain Quality Friendships
- Practice Mindfulness
- Go on Personal Adventures (Alone or with Your Partner)
Have you struggled with parental burnout? Are you doing some or all of these things on a regular basis? We would love to hear from you! Leave us your thoughts in the comments below!