According to new research from The Ohio State University (OSU), many parents are experiencing ‘burnout’ due to stress induced by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The new study finds that 66 percent of working parents during the pandemic met the criteria for parental burnout, which happens when chronic stress and exhaustion overwhelm a parent’s ability to function or cope with stress.
“I think this study reflects how much parents are struggling and how much the pandemic has taken a toll on parents and their relationships with their children,” one of the study’s authors, Kate Gawlik, DNP, RN, associate professor of clinical nursing at The Ohio State University College of Nursing and a nurse practitioner, told Healthline.
“We, as parents, can only do so much, and we are doing the best that we can,” she continued.
Researchers surveyed parents during the height of the pandemic
The findings are based on survey data from 1,285 working parents, collected between January and April 2021 – before vaccines were approved for children and while many pandemic restrictions were still in place.
Past studies have found parental burnout as being distinct from the more commonly recognized job burnout associated with high-stress occupations like law and healthcare.
A researcher surveyed 900 parents and found that parental burnout may be experienced as having exhaustion in your parental role, feeling different from your previous parental self, and it may lead to feelings of being fed up and also feeling emotionally distant from your children.
According to Bernadette Melnyk, PhD, vice president for health promotion, university chief wellness officer, and dean of the College of Nursing at OSU, parental burnout doesn’t just affect parents but also negatively affects their children.
“Not only is parental burnout associated with increased anxiety, depression, and alcohol use, but it is related to punitive or harsher parenting practices,” said Melnyk.
Researcher was motivated by her personal experiences
Gawlik explained that several months into the pandemic, she was feeling rundown.
“I was trying to do everything for everyone,” she said.
“I was trying to keep up with my job responsibilities, home-school my elementary school and preschool children, be a good spouse, put meals on the table, clean my house, be an emotional support system for my family, among other things.”
Gawlik said she was exhausted trying to keep up with everything when she came across the term parental burnout and thought to herself, “that’s it,” this is what she’s feeling.
“And I knew I was not alone in feeling like this,” she said.
“I thought it would be interesting to conduct a study and find out more about parents, specifically working parents like me, who were experiencing burnout with the hope of using this information to inform interventions to help those affected and ultimately improve parent-child relationships,” she continued.
Parental stress can adversely affect children
Melnyk said that parental burnout and other emotions are transmitted to children.
“For example, anxious parents are likely to have anxious children,” she said. “Parents who are burnt out are likely to have children that are having issues with anxiety/depression and acting out behaviors.”
She warned that we must “act urgently” to help parents experiencing burnout to avoid crises for the parents and mental health problems in their children.
Why parents should focus on their own needs
Dr. Alex Dimitriu, double board-certified in psychiatry and sleep medicine and founder of Menlo Park Psychiatry & Sleep Medicine and BrainfoodMD, noted that parents need to focus on themselves first.
“Self-care is the first priority,” he said. “It is mandatory for the parent or caregiver to assure that their own basic biological needs are met – besides work and parenting.”
Dimitriu advises caregivers to focus on their basic needs.
He recommends that parents follow ‘SEMM,’ which stands for sleep, exercise, Mediterranean or another healthy diet, and meditation, or at least make sure they regularly get some quiet and “alone time.”
Melnyk said it’s not selfish to practice good self-care, adding that it’s necessary to take good care of others.
“As part of taking good self-care, parents need to take a few short recovery breaks during the day,” she said.
This can include drinking a warm beverage slowly while focusing on the present moment, getting some physical activity, and taking some deep abdominal breaths when feeling stressed, Melnyk recommended.
She advises parents to be “self-compassionate” and not put such high expectations on themselves that are difficult to live by.
“We need to get better at saying no without guilt, as guilt and worry are the two most wasted emotions,” she said.
Melnyk noted the importance of practicing resiliency and coping skills that serve as protective factors against burnout, depression, and anxiety.
“Such as mindfulness, taking a dose of vitamin G for gratitude every day, and cognitive-behavioral skills building,” said Melnyk.
She also said parents should ask for help, especially if they are experiencing burnout, anxiety, or depression to the point that it is interfering with their concentration, judgment, or functioning.
“It is a strength to recognize when we need help, not a weakness. Let’s shift our current paradigm from sick/crisis care to wellness and prevention!” Melnyk said.