How to deal with parental burnout

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Parental burnout.
Parental burnout.
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Do you battle to juggle your children’s busy schedules, homework demands and sleepless nights with your own frenetic life? If you are forever charging around from one appointment to another, it’s easy to see how you can end up chronically exhausted.

And, science backs you up. A 2018 study by researchers at the Université Catholique de Louvain in Belgium validated parental burnout as a condition just as serious as professional burnout. In fact, Psychology Today reports that around 8%–36% of parents are affected. 

What’s more, counselling clinical psychologist Levandri Pillay says it is healthy to admit to the condition.  “What some parents don’t understand is that there is a big difference between feeling tired and not loving your children. Just because you feel tired and burnt out as a parent doesn’t make you a bad one or mean that you love them any less. It just makes you human,” Pillay says. The problem starts when you ignore, and don’t deal with how you feel. 

Parental burnout shares its common characteristics – emotional distancing, feelings of inadequacy and high levels of fatigue – with work-related burnout. Some parents experience both simultaneously. 

You get easily triggered by what your children do, that you would have overlooked otherwise, to the extent that you are unnecessarily harsh and lash out at them
Levandri Pillay, Counselling Clinical Psychologist


The alarming revelations from the 2018 study are that this condition can lead to personal neglect, violence and thoughts of escape. You find yourself in a horrific cycle where the burnout leads to neglect and further burnout. 

“You get easily triggered by what your children do, that you would have overlooked otherwise, to the extent that you are unnecessarily harsh and lash out at them,” Pillay adds. 

It is important to understand when you are likely to experience these heightened feelings of fatigue, says Dr Anathi Ntozini, a counselling psychologist from Meriting Therapy Centre in Midrand. 

“Is it when work demands are high and your kids are sick, or when you’re driving them around? Understanding this could help you find ways to minimise its effect on you and the kids,” she adds. 

Causes and pressures 

The causes of parental burnout include inconsistent parenting, your unresolved emotional issues from childhood and a hard time asking for help. 

The Belgian study found that the roots of parental burnout had less to do with external factors such as economic resources, the number of kids or the presence or lack of a partner. They had more to do with the characteristics of the parents themselves. And, this is a good thing because external factors are harder to solve, the researchers say. 

They also noted the irony that, in striving to be perfect parents, they ended up becoming the opposite, and that those who longed for parenthood the most, were significantly more at risk. 

“It has also been proven that well-meaning parents of children with busier lives, with many extramural activities, create unhappy offspring. And this inadvertently places more stress on the parents as well,” says Charity Mkone, a Joburg-based clinical psychologist. 

Parents also pile on the pressure by comparing themselves to and competing with others, leading them to take on what they don’t need to
Dr Anathi Ntozini, Counselling Psychologist


She adds, “Child psychoanalyst Selma Fraiberg coined a phrase called ‘Ghosts in the Nursery’. This holds that the way the parents were parented, or the things they felt as children – their internal ghosts – play out in how they parent. So, it’s important to understand and deal with your own emotional baggage so you can be thoughtful, instead of trying to be perfect.” 

The pressures of modern parenting dictate being a fully present mom. Some parents interpret this to mean doing everything themselves and not asking for help. 

“This is a western idea that Africans are adopting. It’s more damaging to be present 24/7, and then feel very resentful that your child is taking up so much of your life and opportunities,” Mkone continues. 

This supports another finding that parental burnout is more strongly associated with highly educated parents with very high expectations of themselves and their children. It is important to reduce the pressures of trying to be a super parent. Your children will survive without a three-course gourmet meal prepared every night,” Pillay says. 

There’s this societal idea that mothering is an instinct that comes naturally. That, in my view, is toxic messaging because it’s a myth
Charity Mkone, Clinical Psychologist

Dr Ntozini adds, “Parents also pile on the pressure by comparing themselves to and competing with others, leading them to take on what they don’t need to.” 


Self-care is not enough

In a bid to rally societal support for burnt-out parents, a fellow mom and editor at mother.ly, Diana Spalding, wrote that self-care is not enough to fix parental burnout. And, she’s right. Self-care does help, but it feels like recharging only to go and get burnt out again. Spalding advocates for the redefinition of motherhood to “undo the years of culture- induced overwhelm that causes us all to burn out”. 

“There’s this societal idea that mothering is an instinct that comes naturally. That, in my view, is toxic messaging because it’s a myth,” Mkone weighs in. 

“Raising a child is strenuous. Parenting is something that is learnt and needs guidance. You make mistakes. We need to stop living up to standards that are unfeasible,” she cautions. 

How to curb parental burnout


Look after yourself first, physically and emotionally. “The notion that you have to be selfless and sacrifice yourself is another myth that is very detrimental to the child. Rest,slow down, exercise and eat healthily. Get psychotherapy as a preventative measure, and not as a last resort, so you live with the self- awareness of your emotional space,” Mkone adds.

Create a convenient routine with the best interest of the child in mind.“Children feel safer, and the more consistent parents are, the sooner they get used to their routine. If children sleep  at regular times then parents can use the extra minutes to work, or to have some quiet time of their own,” Dr Ntozini says.

Get support.“Ask for help and use what is available to you. Get a full-time nanny. If you have extended family who are willing to take children for a weekend, then let the kids go! If you need a Saturday alone, find a day or night-care centre that is open on weekends. You’d be surprised 

how many preschool centres are open and how affordable some of them are,” she encourages.

Maintain an identity outside of motherhood. “You need to do things just for you. This should be something that’s unrelated to children or family. This is a form of self-care,” Pillay says. 

Lower your expectations and reduce extracurricular activities. “If you allow you child too much screen time once in a while, it won’t hurt them. The pressure to get it right all the time is not good for you or the kids,” she adds.

Take family responsibility leave.“It’s there to benefit from. Don’t let anyone make you feel guilty for doing what you need to do for you and your family,” Dr Ntozini says. 


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