When the daily stress of parenting becomes chronic it can turn into parental burnout


When the daily stress of parenting becomes chronic it can turn into parental burnout, an intense exhaustion that leads parents to feel detached from their children and unsure of their parenting abilities, according to research published in Clinical Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

This type of burnout can have serious consequences for both parent and child, increasing parental neglect, harm, and thoughts about escape.

“In the current cultural context, there is a lot of pressure on parents,” says lead researcher Moïra Mikolajczak of UCLouvain.

“But being a perfect parent is impossible and attempting to be one can lead to exhaustion. Our research suggests that whatever allows parents to recharge their batteries, to avoid exhaustion, is good for children.”

Mikolajczak and coauthors James J. Gross of Stanford University and Isabelle Roskam of UCLouvain became interested in the issue through their clinical encounters with good parents who, as a result of their exhaustion, had become the opposite of what they were trying to be.

Although previous research had explored the causes of parental burnout, relatively little was known about its consequences.

The researchers decided to directly examine the outcomes associated with parental burnout in two studies that followed parents over time.

In the first study, Mikolajczak and colleagues recruited parents through social networks, schools, pediatricians, and other sources to participate in research on “parental well-being and exhaustion.”

The parents, mostly French-speaking adults in Belgium, completed three batches of online surveys spaced about 5.5 months apart.

The surveys included a 22-item measure of parental burnout that gauged parents’ emotional exhaustion, emotional distancing, and feelings of inefficacy; a six-item measure that gauged their thoughts about escaping their family; a 17-item measure that gauged the degree to which they neglected their childrens’ physical, educational and emotional needs; and a 15-item measure that gauged their tendency to engage in verbal, physical, or psychological violence.

Because many of the questions asked about sensitive topics, the researchers also measured participants’ tendency to choose the most socially desirable responses when confronted with probing questions.

A total of 2,068 parents participated in the first survey, with 557 still participating at the third survey.

Participants’ data revealed a strong association between burnout and the three variables—escape ideation, parental neglect, and parental violence—at each of the three time points.

Parental burnout at the first and second survey was associated with later parental neglect, parental violence, and escape ideation.

The researchers found that parental burnout and parental neglect had a circular relationship:

Parental burnout led to increased parental neglect, which led to increased burnout, and so on. Parental violence appeared to be a clear consequence of burnout.

Importantly, all of these patterns held even when the researchers took participants’ tendency toward socially desirable responding into account.

A second online study with mostly English-speaking parents in the UK produced similar findings.

Together, the data suggest that parental burnout is likely the cause of escape ideation, parental neglect, and parental violence.

“We were a bit surprised by the irony of the results,” says Mikolajczak.

“If you want to do the right thing too much, you can end up doing the wrong thing. Too much pressure on parents can lead them to exhaustion which can have damaging consequences for the parent and for the children.”

Additional studies are needed to confirm and extend these findings with broader samples and measures.

Nonetheless, the robust pattern of results suggests that there are important lessons to be learned from these findings, the researchers say.

“Parents need to know that self-care is good for the child and that when they feel severely exhausted, they should seek help. Health and child services professionals need to be informed about parental burnout so that they can accurately diagnose it and provide parents with the most appropriate care.

And those engaged in policy and public health need to help raise awareness and lift the taboo on parental burnout, which will encourage parents to seek the help they need,” Mikolajczak concludes.

What Is Parental Burnout?

Parental burnout results from a chronic imbalance of risks over resources in the parenting domain (Mikolajczak & Roskam, 2018). It is defined as a state of intense exhaustion related to one’s parental role, in which one becomes emotionally detached from one’s children and doubtful of one’s capacity to be a good parent (Roskam, Raes & Mikolajczak, 2017). Parents feel so drained by parenting that merely thinking about their role as parents makes them feel they have reached the end of their tether. As a result, they become emotionally distant from their children: they become less and less involved in the relationship

with them, and interactions are limited to functional/instrumental aspects at the expense of emotional aspects. Accordingly, they do not feel they are good parents anymore and lose the pleasure of being with their children (Hubert & Aujoulat, 2018; Roskam, Brianda & Mikolajczak, 2018). According to the most conservative point prevalence estimates (5%; Roskam et al., 2018), at least 3.5 million US parents are currently suffering from parental burnout.

Crucially, parental burnout is not ordinary parental stress (Lebert-Charron, Dorard, Boujut & Wenland, 2018; Kawamoto, Furutani, Alimardani, 2018; Roskam et al., 2017; Van Bakkel, Van Engen & Peters, 2018). It is a prolonged response to chronic and overwhelming parental stress (Mikolajczak & Roskam, 2018). It is not job burnout either: correlations between the two are small to moderate (Kawamoto et al. 2018; Roskam et al., 2017; Van Bakkel et al., 2018); one can be exhausted by one’s job and not by one’s children, and vice versa.

To date, research on parental burnout has focused on understanding what makes parents vulnerable to this condition. Researchers have found that parents are at greatest risk when they (1) aim to be perfect parents (Kawamoto et al., 2018), (2) are neurotic or lack emotion and stress management abilities (Lebert-Charron et al., 2018; LeVigouroux-Nicolas, Scola, Raes, Mikolajczak & Roskam, 2017; Mikolajczak, Raes, Avalosse & Roskam, 2018),

(3) lack emotional or practical support from the co-parent (Lindström, Aman & Lindahl Norberg, 2011; Mikolajczak, Raes et al., 2018) or from the social network more broadly (Séjourné, Sanchez-Rodriguez, Leboullenger, & Callahan, 2018), (4) have poor child-rearing practices (Mikolajczak, Raes et al., 2018), (5) have children with special needs that interfere with family life (Gérain & Zech, 2018; Lindahl Norberg, 2007; Lindström, Aman, Lindahl Norberg, 2010), or (6) work part-time or are stay-at-home parents (Lebert-Charron et al.,

2018; Mehauden & Piraux, 2018) (see Mikolajczak & Roskam, 2018 for a review of risk and protective factors for parental burnout and their respective weights).

What Are the Consequences of Parental Burnout?

Far less is known about the consequences of parental burnout than its antecedents. In the work domain, the related construct of job burnout is associated with a host of negative consequences for both the employee and the company. Job burnout impairs employees’ mental and physical health (see Shirom, Melamed, Toker, Berliner, & Shapira, 2005 for a review), decreases most aspects of job performance (see Taris, 2006 for a meta-analysis), and drastically increases job turnover intention (see Alarcon, 2011 for a meta-analysis).

In the parenting domain, we might expect consequences for both the parent and the family. Cross-sectional findings suggest that parental burnout is, like job burnout, associated with depressive symptoms, addictive behaviors, sleep disorders, and couple conflicts (Kawamoto et al., 2018; Mikolajczak, Brianda et al., 2018, Van Bakkel et al., 2018).

Importantly, parental burnout has been found to be more strongly associated than job burnout with three variables: escape ideation (ideas of running away or committing suicide), child neglect, and parental violence. Parental burnout explained 4 times, 10 times, and 25 times more variance in these variables, respectively, than job burnout (Mikolajczak, Brianda et al., 2018). It is tempting to conclude that escape ideation, child neglect, and parental violence are therefore consequences of parental burnout—but the direction of causation is unknown.

Reverse relations are also possible, as are third variables (i.e. parental burnout and outcomes could all be the product of a common cause, such as neuroticism). In the absence of experimental or cross-lagged longitudinal studies, it is impossible to determine if parental burnout increases the outcomes more than the opposite. The goal of the present research was to address this question.

Implications for Science and Practice

The present findings are of both scientific and practical relevance

. At the scientific level, our results emphasize the importance of conceptually distinguishing between parental and job burnout: while job burnout has a trivial impact on child neglect and violence (see Mikolajczak, Brianda et al., 2018), parental burnout has a large impact on these outcomes. Our findings also constitute a call to action for researchers in clinical psychology: parental burnout needs urgent attention.

Research is in its infancy and more studies are needed about the etiological processes of parental burnout at the micro, meso, and macro-levels (and the relations between these) in order to develop efficient interventions to prevent and treat parental burnout. Beyond their contribution to clinical psychological science, our results are of scientific interest for several related fields:

(i) developmental psychopathology, as this research suggests that parental burnout is most likely an important mediator (and perhaps moderator) of the effect of identified risk factors on child neglect and violence (Stith et al., 2009),

(ii) clinical neuroscience, as our findings emphasize the need and relevance of studies that seek to uncover the brain changes that tie exhaustion to violence (e.g., Heatherton & Wagner 2011),

(iii) social work, which will have to study the most appropriate way to support families when child abuse comes from parental exhaustion, and which should also examine more deeply the issue of missing parents, as the current result suggest that some parents may abandon their legal obligations towards their children due to extreme exhaustion, and finally

(iv) public health, which should study how some campaigns in the parenting domain contribute to the exhaustion of today’s parents, creating a cascade of downstream negative consequences for parents and their children (e.g., Coyne, McDaniel & Stockdale, 2017).

At the practical level, our findings show that although folk theories of parenthood render severe parenting-related distress taboo (Hansen, 2012), the veil must be lifted on parental burnout. Sensitization campaigns would allow burned out parents to seek help (and be taken care of) earlier on, thereby reducing the risk or frequency of deleterious consequences for both parents and children.

Besides parents, professionals of health and child services should be informed as well. This is essential to allow them to accurately diagnose parental burnout and to provide parents with the most appropriate care.

Beyond intervention, prevention of parental burnout must be intensified too. This can be done by reinforcing the use of existing “parenting hotlines” but also by providing parents with more resources to do their parenting job. On a more general note, our findings suggest that clinicians working with suffering children might want to consider more systematically the suffering parent behind the suffering child.

The former can impact the latter, so by reducing parents’ suffering, clinicians can help reduce that of their children.

More information: Moïra Mikolajczak et al, Parental Burnout: What Is It, and Why Does It Matter?, Clinical Psychological Science (2019). DOI: 10.1177/2167702619858430

Journal information: Clinical Psychological Science
Provided by Association for Psychological Science


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