Parental Burnout: What to Do If You Feel Overwhelmed as a Parent

parental burnout parent overwhelmLast year, an article in the New York Times described “The Relentlessness of Modern Parenting.” That word struck me at the time and has stuck with me ever since. Speaking as a mom of two, the expectations and pressures weighing on parents can indeed feel relentless.

It’s not enough to keep our children clothed and fed, get them to school, and take the occasional family vacation. Parents today should provide optimal nutrition from birth and ensure that kids have the best educational opportunities. We’re told to enroll them in sports, extracurriculars, and tutoring to give them a competitive edge for college, then we’re obliged to volunteer as assistant coach, snack mom, and classroom parent. By the way, you’re already saving money for college, right?

Don’t forget, we’re also in charge of arranging playdates, monitoring screen time, and searching Pinterest for unique birthday party ideas and fun hijinks for the Elf on the Shelf.

No wonder parents are succumbing to burnout.


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What is Parental Burnout?

For academics, the term parental burnout has a specific meaning. In 2018, Belgian researchers developed the Parental Burnout Assessment, which comprises four factors:1

  1. Exhaustion, e.g., “I feel completely run down by my role as a parent.”
  2. Contrast with previous parental self, e.g., “I don’t think I’m the good father/mother that I used to be to my child(ren).”
  3. Feeling fed up, e.g., “I feel like I can’t take any more as a parent.”
  4. Emotional distancing from one’s children, e.g., “I’m no longer able to show my child(ren) how much I love them.”

By this definition, burnout is more than just stress, worry, or fatigue, which all parents experience sometimes. It’s a deep, deep weariness that drains your ability to parent effectively, leaving you empty and unable to connect to your kids. Left unchecked, it can lead to parental neglect and violence. Burnout also correlates with depression, sleep disturbances, and addictive behaviors, though it’s unclear if burnout causes those issues or vice versa.2


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Risk Factors for Parental Burnout

Some of the factors that make a parent more vulnerable to burnout are:

  • Holding themselves to unrealistic standards
  • Difficult family situations due to socioeconomic pressures, strain with co-parents, or children with special health or developmental challenges, for example
  • Not wanting to be a parent in the first place
  • Lack of social support, not having a “village”
  • Personality traits like neuroticism, general lack of coping skills

Is Parental Burnout an Especially Modern Phenomenon?

Since research into parental burnout is fairly new, there’s no longitudinal data that speaks directly to this. Intuitively, though, it feels like parents today must experience more burnout than previous generations.

Parenting is continually evolving. Both mothers and fathers spend considerably more time interacting with their kids than they did 50 years ago.3 We’re overscheduled and overcommitted, which means we’re overstressed.4 The financial cost of raising a child continues to rise. Social media presents a host of new challenges—cyberbullying, mommy wars, and FOMO, oh my!

More to the point, parents face social pressure to be constantly “on” like never before. Sociologists refer to this as intensive parenting, so named by Sharon Hays in her 1996 book The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood. Parents, especially mothers, are expected to invest heavily in their children, devoting nearly unlimited time, emotional energy, and money to parenting. Intensive parenting holds that parents are responsible for managing every aspect of kids’ lives, preventing all manner of potential harm, and ensuring the best possible outcomes for their children.

Clearly, these standards are unattainable for many—perhaps most—parents. In particular, wealth heavily impacts the types of opportunities parents can access for their kids and the amount of time they can devote to parenting. Yet parents across the spectrum endorse intensive parenting ideals.5

The pressure to live up to the ideal is intense, and it’s both external and internal. A study of 1725 Finnish parents, mostly mothers, revealed that the biggest risk factor for burnout was “socially prescribed perfectionism,” especially when coupled with self-expectations of perfectionism.6 Not surprisingly, intensive parenting beliefs are associated with greater stress, depression, anxiety, and guilt for mothers.7

How Common Is Parental Burnout?

It’s hard to know how many parents experience burnout according to the academic criteria described above. Studies suggest it’s anywhere from 1 percent to 20 percent, depending on where the study is done.8 9 10 That doesn’t take into account extenuating circumstances such as having a child with chronic illness, which is known to increase parental stress.11

You might not reach the official threshold for Parental Burnout with a capital P-B. Still, most of my fellow parents can probably relate to sometimes—or often—feeling exhausted, like you have nothing left to offer at the end of the day. A March 2020 survey asked more than 3,000 American moms, “In the past month, how often have you felt ‘burned out’ by motherhood?” Thirty-five percent of respondents said they frequently do, while 6 percent said always.

That’s a lot. Only 14 percent said they rarely or never feel this way. That doesn’t mean these moms don’t find parenting to be rewarding and enjoyable overall, but it reinforces just how demanding modern parenting is.

What about Fathers, Can’t They Experience Burnout?

Definitely. However, parenting and burnout research focuses mainly on mothers. On average, mothers spend more time than fathers on parenting activities, and by and large, mothers bear the brunt of societal and self-imposed pressure to live up to ideals of parenting perfection.12 13

Of course, there are standards for fathers, too, and those standards continue to rise. Fathers who feel overwhelmed by them, or who expect too much of themselves, can absolutely succumb to burnout. According to a 2015 Pew Research Center study, equal numbers of mothers and fathers said that parenting is extremely or very important to their sense of identity, but working fathers are especially likely to feel that they don’t spend enough time with their kids.14 At least one study found that mothers and fathers experience parental burnout at the same rate.15 Another study published earlier this year found that while mothers were more likely to experience burnout, the consequences were more severe for burned out fathers.16

Are Primal Parents Especially at Risk?

I’ve been going back and forth on this. On the one hand, isolation and lack of social support are huge risk factors for burnout, and parenting outside the norm can feel lonely. Repeatedly explaining—and defending—your choices to family members, pediatricians, teachers, and fellow parents can be exhausting, especially when they challenge you and call your parenting into question.

On the other hand, Primal parents may be more comfortable with the idea of free-range parenting—exempting ourselves from the pressures of intensive parenting and opting instead for a more relaxed, less “helicopter-y” style. For these parents, I’d expect burnout to be considerably lower.

Pandemic Burnout

Not to ignore the elephant in the room, parenting through a pandemic takes the notion of parental burnout to a whole other level. It’s terribly hard to rely on our villages while adhering to social distancing guidelines. The stress of trying to keep everyone safe, working from home, and carving out time for ourselves can become overwhelming.

Ironically, though, the pandemic and lockdowns probably alleviated burnout for some parents. We’ve been forced—or rather, given the opportunity—to slow down and spend more time with our kids. In a survey conducted by the American Psychological Association at the end of May, 82 percent of parents said they were grateful for this extra time.17

Coping with Parental Burnout

In case it’s not perfectly clear, you can feel burned out without experiencing “parental burnout” in the academic sense. Whether or not you hit that threshold, which is admittedly a bit murky, the following practices are worthwhile.

Focus on the positive

It’s easy to get sucked into a negativity spiral when you’re feeling overwhelmed and anxious. Plus, self-deprecation is the norm nowadays. We’re much more likely to say, “I’m a hot mess, send wine,” than “I did some A+ parenting today and am feeling great about my kids.”  That’s no good for parents already on the verge of burnout.

Experts recommend taking the time each day to focus on what went right. This might mean going around the dinner table and each naming something that made you happy, or writing a simple gratitude statement in your journal each night. Even on the worst days, it’s usually possible to find one small ray of sunshine.

The usual self-care stuff

Taking a bath or getting regular exercise isn’t a cure-all for burnout, but it can’t hurt. All of us parents should be taking the time to fill our own buckets whenever possible.

Lower your expectations

This is a big one: actively reject the intensive parenting ideal. Remind yourself it’s ok if the laundry isn’t done, your kid is five minutes late to soccer practice, you forgot to brush their hair on school picture day, and the Tooth Fairy failed to pick up the tooth last night.

This is not an overnight process, but it helps to realize that a lot of burnout stems from buying into societal standards—standards that you don’t have to live up to to be a kind and loving parent.

Here’s the real kicker: It’s not even clear that putting ourselves through all this stress pays off in terms of having happier or more successful children.18 So, how about we all try to stop holding ourselves, and each other, to unrealistic standards that make us miserable, okay?

Stop parenting on social media

Another big one. Don’t spend valuable time and energy curating a parenting facade on social media. More importantly, stop following people who make you feel “less than” in comparison. You don’t need to compete with other parents to see whose kid is having the most magical childhood. Keep your eyes on your own paper.

Get help

You deserve to feel good about yourself as a parent, period. If you don’t, whether it’s because you are overwhelmed or need help developing effective parenting tools, don’t wait until you’re totally underwater. Ask for help now.

Burnout isn’t an inevitable consequence of modern parenting. Many parents shield themselves from the weight of the expectations and find everyday joy in raising their small humans. It’s not easy… but nothing about parenting is, is it?

I usually end by asking for feedback, but today I’d just like to offer a virtual high-five, fist bump, or hug to my fellow parents out there. Parenting is tough, but you’re tougher! You’ve got this.

TAGS:  parenting

About the Author

Lindsay Taylor, PhD

Lindsay Taylor, Ph.D., is a senior writer and community manager for Primal Nutrition, a certified Primal Health Coach, and the co-author of three keto cookbooks.

As a writer for Mark’s Daily Apple and the leader of the thriving Keto Reset and Primal Endurance communities, Lindsay’s job is to help people learn the whats, whys, and hows of leading a health-focused life. Before joining the Primal team, she earned her master’s and Ph.D. in Social and Personality Psychology from the University of California, Berkeley, where she also worked as a researcher and instructor.

Lindsay lives in Northern California with her husband and two sports-obsessed sons. In her free time, she enjoys ultra running, triathlon, camping, and game nights. Follow along on Instagram @theusefuldish as Lindsay attempts to juggle work, family, and endurance training, all while maintaining a healthy balance and, most of all, having fun in life. For more info, visit lindsaytaylor.co.

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15 thoughts on “Parental Burnout: What to Do If You Feel Overwhelmed as a Parent”

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  1. There are no words for how hard this is hitting me and many of the parents in my world. Add on top the guilt that we’re struggling with what feels like a first-world problem even as the U.S. deals with 200,000 COVID deaths, rampant social conflict, and looming economic instability. It’s awesome. We’re all having a blast.

    The key thing really does seem to be taking a step back and focusing on the priorities: our kids’ and our well-being day to day. The rest can ebb and flow, we can approach it with more lightness and stop striving so hard and so constantly. If you have kids, do your best and then give yourself a break – it’s good modeling for your kids. If you don’t have kids but can be nice to someone who does, now is a great time!

    1. Yes, it’s super fun 😉 Your second paragraph is spot on!

      1. ESPECIALLY the social media facade as mentioned. If they’re not providing “the most magical childhood”, then they’re having a tougher time than ANYONE ELSE with their challenging children and you’ll get a 14 point inspirational ‘how to’ on overcoming it. Either way, most people in general and/or parents use this to feed the ego by ‘impacting others’ and in their minds, have won the contest for best or worst as if to state their case that thusly you should look to them for advice. The social media aspect of this article, albeit a small part, is the most significant. Sweep your own front porch. Take care of your family the way you know best. Nothing has really changed in terms of modern vs ancient parenting. It’s the social media facade that is leaving people feeling that they’re falling short, and this mirage can lead to overwhelm. You’re trying to catch the moon the in stream, and it will always elude you.

  2. Awesome article Lindsay!
    I’m equating it to my own Caregiver Burnout (nearly had a melt down yesterday and made terrible health choices for myself).
    Appreciate you!

  3. I appreciate reading this on the MDA blog!! I have found I’m most stressed when I’m trying to be the perfect parent and end up sabotaging my best efforts as I become overwhelmed by that impossible standard. I actually went off social media a couple years ago, mostly due to comparing myself to other moms (or women in general.) I’ve experienced a lot of freedom from perfection over the past year and it’s been good for my whole family!

    Also, my husband used to work so much (while pursuing higher education as well) that I didn’t feel I had enough help or support raising our children. When he changed jobs to one where he could better manage his daily demands, I felt supported and no longer constantly overwhelmed.

    1. It really can be such a vicious cycle. I’m glad you’ve found a more peaceful path!

  4. Thank you for this article, I don’t have much to say (besides maybe crying a little), you took my thoughts and eloquently interpreted them. This made me feel a little less crazy thinking that I might be going through a burnout. We loved it when we all were in quarantine, but since things are getting back to their speed-of-light routine, the pressure is back… and man, is it rough. Thanks again for the good read!

  5. Six months ago I moved my work from the office to home. My wife had just started in an industry that required she go in to work, so our roles as the at-home parent vs the got-to-work parent flipped.

    I was home with the kids, overseeing education, meals, playtime, etc, along with the household chores, and far from feeling burnout, the more I do it, the more I’m loving it.

    In my 20s I was diagnosed with mild diastolic hypertension. Last month, for the first time in 30 years, I had normal blood pressure. Being at home with my kids full time has given me whatever the opposite of parental burnout is.

    I don’t know, I guess I’m just a bit of a freak.

    1. There are ways I have felt calmer and more at ease since basically everything was taken off our schedules. It’s the perfect example of the both-and thinking I mentioned in the ambiguous loss post. For me, parenting is harder AND easier right now. It’s great that for you things have shifted to mostly easier!

  6. Thanks for this. Juggling remote work and online education has been simply insane, but we keep trying to focus on how great it really is to be around each other (even when it doesn’t seem like it 🙂

  7. This is a great article, and I definitely needed it right now. I have been working from home since March which is very challenging with 1, 3 and 4 year old kids and no quite place for an office. My wife is a nurse and works weekends, so we rarely get to spend a whole day parenting together. I’ve been trying to work on my burnout but definitely don’t feel like I’m making progress!

    Being health-minded does add its own challenges too, specifically when it comes to meals and limiting screen time. We’re not militant, but we do try to do our best every day.

  8. Great topic! Thank you. I wouldn’t say I have parenting burnout but I will say on the days my teen son’s with me (half the time) I’m a lot more wiped out by the end of the day. I’m an authoritative free-range parent with the caveat that he is a picky eater/slow grower and gluten+dairy sensitive, hard to pull away from screen, home body, singleton in my household…which adds up to me being relatively hands-on. While I don’t envy parents of toddlers and pre-schoolers right now, I feel like at least at that age, my son was a lot easier to get and stay on program. 🙂