An Honest Look at the Cause & Effect of Parental Burnout

Note: This blog post was originally publish 08/09/16 and has been updated and republished on 09/06/17.


An Honest Look at the Cause & Effect of Parental Burnout

Is parental burnout a real thing, or is it just a way of saying parenting is a hard job?

To answer that question let’s start with the subject of burnout in general — and yes, it is quite real.

An Honest Look at the Cause & Effect of Parental BurnoutBurnout occurs:

  1. When we lack balance in our lives and essentially are asking ourselves to work without time to recuperate.
  2. When our efforts go unrewarded. So if you go to work, and no matter how hard you work, your projects always fail and you always receive only negative feedback. That would be pretty miserable and would lead to burnout, even if you are well paid.

The symptoms of burnout include:

  • depression,
  • anxiety,
  • fatigue,
  • sleeplessness,
  • hopelessness,
  • loss of appetite or overeating,
  • and impaired self-esteem.

And to make matters worse, those symptoms will lead to impaired work performance as well.

Not a Pretty Picture, Is It?

Well, parenting is work, and it can — under normal circumstances — be a thankless job.

After all, when was the last time your child or teen said,

“Hey Mom! Thanks for sitting my butt down in the chair and making me do my homework. I really needed that.”

And it’s not exactly a high-paying job either.

Parental burnout can occur under several circumstances, or a combination of these circumstances:

No Down Time

Most parents have experienced that after a full day of parenting with no personal time, no opportunity to exercise, rest, or socialize they can feel pretty miserable. If that goes on day after day with no end in sight, burnout will result.

A Child with Special Needs

Some children and teens have special needs related to issues such as Autism Spectrum Disorder, Down’s Syndrome, chronic illness, among other conditions. These situations take a village to support the child or teenager in addition to their parents. Otherwise, burnout will result. Conversely, I’ve seen kids with special needs and their parents thrive with professional and social support.

Lack of Peer Support

As I said, parenting is a job and like any other job, it requires feedback that provides support for the things a parent is doing well, and sage advise for dealing with issues a parent needs help with. Parenting in a social vacuum leads to burnout.

A Parent-Teen Control Battle

Remember, a Control Battle is a negative relationship pattern that feeds off of the child or teen’s response to the parent, and the parent’s response to the child or teenager. So no matter what the parent tries to do, it is rendered ineffective.

Think about it.

How would it feel if no matter what you did to deal with a problem, it was doomed to fail? It reminds me of the Greek Myth of Sisyphus, who was sentenced in the underworld to roll a giant boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down for eternity.

Here is a rather extreme example of parental burnout I recently saw:

Burnout Leads to Ineffective Parenting

Janet came in with her 10-year-old son Alan, carrying her 8-month-old who was sleeping in her car seat.

Janet explained that the school recommended that she talk with me about Alan who was in trouble on an almost daily basis. Janet explained that she was getting calls that Alan was refusing to do his work or follow directions in class.

As I talked with Janet, I learned that she had been happily working in the marketing department of her software company when she met and soon married an Engineering Director, Ivan, who was very smart, charming and ambitious.

Janet was promised the home of her dreams and would be able to be a stay-at-home mom. In fact, they built a beautiful rural mountain home where they were raising their son and now baby daughter.

There were, however, a couple of problems living their dream.

Shortly after their son Alan was born, Ivan went to a new startup company where he worked 12-hour days and with a commute, he was essentially gone from 6 am to 8 pm every day and was on the computer or the phone at least part of most weekends.

The company was well-funded with the promise of a big payout when it sold or went public. But that was supposed to have happened four years ago, and then again two years ago, and now they were talking about next year.

Alan was a very active child from the time he was born and Janet has always been a pretty high-strung person. She had a tendency to get easily upset and had been in a state of constant overwhelm ever since Alan was born.

Alan felt constantly shamed and criticized by his mother’s reactions to him and became generally defiant in his behavior with her, and now in school as well.

Alan’s father was critical of Alan as well, but Alan respected and feared him so he cooperated more when he was around. Sometimes they would even do something special together. Ivan would then criticize Janet for not being able to manage him better.

I offered Janet some new approaches with Alan, but it was immediately clear that she was in no shape to think about what I was offering let alone implement a change in her parenting approach.

The fact that she was…

  • isolated,
  • had no support,
  • and was high strung temperamentally…

…left her in a chronic state of burnout that dramatically lowered her ability to parent effectively.

She was depressed and feeling hopeless.

Yes, Parental Burnout Is a Real Thing…

Realizing that Janet was in a state of serious burnout, I referred her to a therapist who could help her with her depression and begin to sort out and deal with the many issues in her life.

I called the school and helped them make a plan to work with Alan in a way where they wouldn’t need to call Janet to deal with behaviors that took place in the classroom. That was simply too much for her to deal with and it added to her burnout.

Besides, classroom behaviors are best handled in the classroom anyway.

Janet’s case was extreme:

  • She was in an unfulfilling marriage
  • Was socially isolated
  • Was stressed caring for her 8-month-old
  • Was in a Control Battle with her 10-year-old
  • And was pressured by the school to get her son to behave

All this worked to create her case of serious burnout with symptoms that further reduced her ability to function.

Burnout doesn’t have to be this serious to be real.

Just a couple of the above issues could begin to bring on burnout and simply being in a Control Battle with your child or teenager can be enough to start a parent on a downward spiral.

So don’t be a hero!

Trust your feelings!

If you find yourself beginning to feel burned out, identify the contributing issues and take action to get your mental health back on track.

You’re worth it!

And you won’t be able to meet anyone else’s needs if yours aren’t met first.

Have you had your own experiences with parental burnout? If so, please share them with our community in the comments below.

Interested in learning more about parental burnout?

Check out these helpful resources:

  1. Turn Self-Doubt & Burnout Into Empowered Parenting
  2. Parental Burnout: End it And Thrive
  3. Parental Burnout: What It Is and How To Recover From It

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Posted in Parenting.


  1. KMJ-
    It does seem that you are in a chronic state of burnout. It sounds to me like you’ve been struggling to survive though-out your entire adult life and I’m sure that your childhood and adolescence were filled with challenging situations that were some form or forms of abuse. When kids grow up in those circumstances, they get filled with trauma and feelings of unworthiness and when we are carrying trauma and unworthiness with us on a daily basis, it’s exhausting and will lead to chronic burnout. And when we parent in a state of burnout, we have a pretty hard time managing our emotions and doing a quality job. Your parents were most likely raised with trauma and unworthiness, that got passed on to you, and now you are understandably concerned that you are passing it on to your son. The fact that you are reaching out to find out how to be a better Mom, is evidence of your love and caring for your son and you can in fact break this destructive cycle.
    There are two things I recommend that you do:
    1) Get into recovery for trauma and abuse. That can include individual therapy, recovery groups, reading, videos, workshops; anything and everything you can do. You need to develop self-respect and self-compassion. There are good psychotherapy tools for healing childhood trauma and you can benefit enormously from them. Just make sure the therapist is experienced with childhood trauma and abuse.
    2) Make some one on one time with your son doing some activities that he enjoys. Explain that your “melt-downs” are not his fault and you want to help him learn and grow in a better way and that you are working on it. Then make sure you have a strong parenting strategy to follow, and stick to it. Your son is young enough that if you change course now, he can do great. You and your son might have some sessions with a counselor to get going in the right direction together.
    I’ve prepared a podcast titled “It’s Time To Move From Surviving To Thriving” that responds to your situation in greater detail it will be published in the next couple of weeks. There are enough elements in your situation and my responses to it that will be beneficial to all listeners.
    Thanks for reaching out and my very best wishes to you,

  2. I feel like a terrible mother. I have had these feelings since my son was born nearly 8 years ago no support from my partner little support from family and no support from friends. I was 19 and they we living completely different lives to me. I have on occasions completely lost it with my son screamed shouted swore thrown things (not at him but I across the room) told him if he doesn’t change his behaviour il send him to live with his grandparents (which is something I would never do it was said in anger) at times he flinched when he is in trouble I have never hurt him I have tapped his arm or leg when he is being extremely rude but that is as far as it has/would go. I now have a nearly 2 year old daughter and she is hard work on a daily basis she’s a typical 2 year old however I feel like I made and continue to make so many mistakes with my son I try and not make those same mistakes with her. My partner is a bit more supportive now and I have friends that will support me and family that will help but I still in occasion can’t cope and lose it! I have been prescribed sertraline for anxiety which have helped however I feel riddled with guilt at how I’ve reacted to my sons behaviour at times that I’m struggling to move on. Please help

  3. Pingback: 7 Articles On Parental Burnout – Neil D. Brown

  4. KD, I read you loud and clear and you are indeed in a very painful place. I get that and I feel it. First and foremost, please see a therapist to help you deal with your feelings. No one should be expected to manage such overwhelming feelings on their own. Let me offer some thoughts on your situation: First of all, you have decided to have this baby so there are some pretty big challenges you are facing. You don’t have to deal with these challenges on your own. “It takes a village.” So mobilize your village. I don’t know if you have a partner, but he or she would be a key part. You have 3 kids. They may need to become better helpers and participants in their family; including taking care of each other at certain times and in certain ways. Then there are family and friends who can participate in an ongoing way. For instance, what if a sister, aunt, brother, friend, cousin had special time with certain of your kids every week? What if one of your team came over once a week and cooked dinner?

    Right now KD, you are in shock and you can’t see your way through your situation. Please understand that shock is what’s going on and give yourself time to think this through and get the support you need and deserve.

    I’ve seen families with 4 kids do great; sometimes 4 is better than 3 for family dynamics. I also think that currently, we raise kids without asking enough of them and they are growing up to be too self-centered. The first community our kids live in is their family, so this will be a good time for your first 3 to be good participants in the community called family.

    KD, I suspect that you were on burn-out before this pregnancy and this is putting you over the edge. Right now is a time to learn how to function out of burn-out, to ask more of others, to take better care of yourself. You’re worth it!

  5. Pregnant with number 4 and I don’t think I can do it. I’m so sad, don’t want to have an abortion but scared to mother another person. I have a full time career and I’m so scared, depressed and overwhelmed

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