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June 29, 2022

Coping with parental burnout during lockdown

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‘I was constantly trying to be the best parent I could but now I am so tired, often in autopilot or overwhelmed, so far away from what I wanted to be.’ Photo Victoria Borodinova.

Hélène Gatland

Parenting can be demanding at times, but the additional stresses of lockdown such as homeschooling and varied routines have led to a rise in a troubling syndrome known as parental burnout.

Widely studied in the French-speaking world since 2017, parental burnout is a relatively new concept in Australia. Symptoms include exhaustion from the parental role, overload and loss of pleasure from parenting, and emotional distancing from one’s children.

It is important to note that parental burnout is more than just stress and fatigue and the consequences for families can be severe.

A crucial aspect of parental burnout is the contrast between how a parent is and how they used to be. They often describe themselves as being a shadow of themselves and this can result in a sense of guilt or shame.

Is parental burnout a new syndrome?

Having made the decision to start a family, parents often feel uncomfortable discussing the challenges of parenting and asking for help. Photo Alexandra Koch.

The first account of the term ‘parental burnout’ dates back to 1983. However, it was not until 2017 that the syndrome was intensively studied by Belgium researchers Dr Isabelle Roskam and Dr Moïra Mikolajczak. Their findings suggest that parental burnout is more prevalent in the 21st century for a range of reasons.

The advent of contraception and assisted reproductive technology (ART) enables forward planning of families – to have children at optimal times or not at all. Pregnancy becomes a more conscious decision that comes with a heightened sense of responsibility. In the case of ART, it also often comes at significant cost, both financially and emotionally.

Having made the decision to start a family, parents often feel uncomfortable discussing the challenges of parenting and asking for help.

Over the years, gender roles have also changed. Where women were once solely responsible for domestic duties, they also now form part of the workforce. Conversely, where men were traditionally the sole income earners, they now share an active role in the home. This change of dynamic requires that parents develop a set of skills that they may not have been exposed to during their upbringing.

The 20th century saw growing interest from the medical community in children’s development, including the effects of various parenting styles. The mountain of often conflicting information now available to parents can be confusing and overwhelming and can be a cause of distress for many.

What are the risk factors?

Photo Irina Gavrilonoka.

While causes of parental burnout vary between families, an international investigation led by Drs Roskam and Mikolajczak suggests that there are common risk factors.

These include difficulty dealing with stressful situations, a desire to be a ‘perfect parent’, difficulty delegating parental responsibilities, being a full-time parent, lack of consistency in parenting style and caring for a child with a disability.

How do we fix it?

The good news is that there are scientifically proven methods to reduce stress associated with parental burnout to normal levels in less than three months.

Here are a few tips for parents facing lockdown.

One immediate coping technique is to introduce a routine; rather than multitasking, prioritise one activity at a time – chedule these in advance and ensure your children understand the new routine and expectations of them. This will enable your family to enjoy quality time together, with time separately dedicated to work and other responsibilities.

Secondly, lower your expectations and adjust your parenting style to the ‘new norm’ of COVID-19. This means letting go of previously held standards that are unrealistic to achieve during lockdown. Don’t aim for perfection, all you need is to be good enough.

Finally, seek support. Ask those around you for help, including your children. Be creative, the support you need may be right in front of you. This extends to your mental wellbeing. If needed, reach for a professional earlier rather than later.’


 

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