June 20, 2022 — It’s not just kids and health care workers: Working parents, too, are increasingly burned out.
Researchers at Ohio State University found that 66% of parents of children under 18 met the criteria for burnout. Those results are based on a survey of nearly 1,300 parents.
Kate Gawlik, a doctor of nursing practice and associate professor of clinical nursing at Ohio State, conceived of and worked on the study.
“I came up with the idea of creating and studying a parental burnout scale because of my own experience,” she says. “During the pandemic, although I wasn’t seeing patients at the clinic, I was working from home full-time in my academic position, and so was my husband, and taking care of my four children.”
Gawlik’s children range from 3 to 10 years old. During the pandemic, her oldest child was 8 and her youngest was a toddler.
Gawlik approached Bernadette Melnyk, PhD, dean of the College of Nursing at Ohio State. Together, they came up with the Working Parent Burnout Scale, studied it, and found it valid and reliable. Their findings will soon be published in the Journal of Pediatric Healthcare, says Melnyk, who is a professor of pediatrics and psychiatry.
The scale is included in the report so parents can test their own level of burnout and get the help they need for themselves and/or their children. The report also contains helpful tips and tools for parents who are burning out.
“We want parents to understand they’re not alone in their struggles. Recognizing when you need help is a sign of strength, not weakness, and we hope that our report and the suggestions we include will be a step in that direction,” Gawlik says.
Risk Factors for Parental Burnout
Gawlik and Melnyk found that over two-thirds of respondents were “burned out,” with mothers more likely than fathers to say they were overwhelmed (68% vs. 42%). Parental burnout rose in households with two or three children, leveled off in households with four or five children, and increased again in households with six or more.
Over three-quarters (77%) of parents who had a history of anxiety reported burnout, and a similar number reported burnout if they had a child with ADHD or anxiety (77% and 73%, respectively).
This isn’t surprising. At a time of great uncertainty, having a personal history of anxiety can be another risk factor, and it can also be anxiety-provoking (and tiring) to have a child with a condition such as ADHD or anxiety.
As part of the study, parents were asked to complete a pediatric symptom checklist to report their children’s behaviors. Behaviors suggesting attention problems include not being able to sit still, a hard time concentrating, and being easily distracted.
“Children’s internalizing behaviors, such as sadness or unhappiness, aren’t as observable as externalizing behaviors – like acting out and aggression – are, but underneath those externalizing behaviors, many children often have underlying depression and anxiety that can manifest as anger or fighting,” Melnyk said.
A Juggling Act
Gawlik called the time during the pandemic “one of the hardest” she’d ever had, trying to juggle her work, the household, and her four kids.
“I wanted to be a good parent, do well in my job, and be a good spouse,” she says. She tended to the kids so much during the day that she would do her work at night. It was a “vicious cycle of always trying to keep up and not getting any sleep, and I didn’t see an end in sight.”
Gawlik felt she was “forced to be some kind of superhuman, a full-time caregiver to the younger kids, a full-time teacher to the older kids, a faculty member at the university, and someone who kept the household moving. It’s unrealistic to put that amount of responsibility on one human being.”
Many bad effects of the pandemic linger, Gawlik says. Some children may be academically behind their age, and many parents continue to struggle with exhaustion and play endless catch-up.
Gawlik knows her situation is far from unique.
“All parents do the very best they can, but when current stressors outweigh parents’ coping skills and resources, it’s understandable for the parents to experience burnout and the emotional toll that burnout takes on mental health and well-being.”
Practice Good Self-Care
Burnout is more than an unpleasant feeling. It can affect your parenting and your children. The researchers found that parental burnout is strongly tied to depression, anxiety, and more drinking in parents.
Burnout in parents can also be associated with “dramatic increases” in the likelihood that parents may insult, criticize, scream at, curse at, and/or physically harm their children (for example, through spanking), the researchers say.
Dealing with burnout starts with self-care. “Many parents think it’s selfish to take care of themselves, but I always tell them that self-care isn’t a ‘nicety,’ it’s a necessity,” Melnyk says.
She also encourages parents to be “self-compassionate and kind to themselves and lower their expectations that they’re supposed to be ‘perfect’ or superhuman.” It’s important not to overcommit or feel guilty for saying “no” to something.
Melnyk recommends talking to someone you trust about how you’re feeling (like a family member or friend) and getting professional help if necessary (from your primary care provider or a mental health professional). And work on building your resilience and coping skills through practices such as mindfulness, gratitude, self-affirmations, and deep-belly breathing.
If your children are stressed out or showing problem behaviors, the researchers say they get should help as well.
Sleep, Calm, and Gratitude
Gawlik says the situation has improved. She’s getting more sleep and using summer break, when she does not have teaching responsibilities, to get her strength back.
“I think one of the most important things to do is to get more sleep,” she says. “If you don’t get enough sleep, you’re more likely to be irritable, snap, and yell at your kids.”
She has other advice as well. “All of us, regardless of the age of our kids, can get outside, walk, and exercise. And I’m a huge proponent of a healthy diet, which improves mood immensely. These are things within our control that contribute to healthy self-care.”
She urges parents to connect with other parents to talk about feelings of burnout. “Talk to friends who have kids around the same ages as your kids, because they’ll understand what you’re going through.
Gawlik uses a mindfulness app in her home every day. It contains soothing music, body scans, and sleep stories. “I use them every night with my children,” she says.
There’s a wide variety of resources to help with building resilience and countering burnout, including mindfulness, meditation, and gratitude. “I think it’s important to maintain perspective about what’s important in your life, and feeling grateful for those things is a key way to keep healthy,” Gawlik says.