Ohio State study: How to know if you’re burned out as a parent

Two-thirds of working moms and dads show signs of burnout. And it’s not just impacting their performance in the workplace, according to new research from Ohio State University.

“Are you a working parent who is feeling exhausted, irritable, emotionally detached or overwhelmed with parenting your children?” the study’s authors ask. “If so, you may be experiencing parental burnout.” The study says that such burnout raises mental health concerns for parents and increases the likelihood that they’ll lash out at their kids.

Parenting stress is nothing new — and it’s not burnout. Burnout refers to chronic stress and exhaustion that “overwhelm” a parent’s coping mechanisms and hamper function. The consequences can be serious, especially if parents “detach” from their children as a result.

The pandemic contributed to “epidemic levels of burnout and exhaustion,” according to the study’s authors, Kate Gawlik, an associate professor of clinical nursing at Ohio State, and Bernadette Mazurek Melnyk, vice president of health promotion, dean of the College of Nursing and chief wellness officer for the school, as well as a professor of pediatrics and psychiatry.

“You want to try to be such a great parent; you want to do well at your job; you want to be a good partner; you want to have a clean house,” Gawlik said in a press release. “There is just so much being thrown at you with having to do all of that in a pandemic, it’s almost like burnout to some degree is inevitable.”

The face of burnout

Kate Kripke, a clinical social worker and founder of the Postpartum Wellness Center in Boulder, Colorado, described burnout this way to the Seattle Times: “It’s a state where you have been giving and giving and giving and giving — until you’re totally empty.”

That article quoted Dr. Jennifer Yen, a psychiatrist at UTHealth Houston, on red flags that might signal a parent is burned out, including feeling angry or resentful about having to care for your children and starting to isolate from them physically or emotionally. She told the Seattle Times that parents with burnout might feel trapped or fantasize about leaving.

The Ohio State survey found that 68{44affb6c5789133b77de981cb308c1480316fee51f5fd5f1575b130f48379a33} of females likely have burnout, compared to 42{44affb6c5789133b77de981cb308c1480316fee51f5fd5f1575b130f48379a33} of males. Burnout was particularly likely among parents with a personal history of anxiety, at 77{44affb6c5789133b77de981cb308c1480316fee51f5fd5f1575b130f48379a33}.

How many children parents had at home made a difference. Burnout increased among those with two or three children, plateaued among those with four or five and then increased again with more children.

The survey, conducted from Jan. 19 to April 28, 2021, included 1,285 adults who have minor children at home. The poll looked at parents’ burnout, parent depression and anxiety, and child behavior problems. Among the findings:

  • Being female, the number of children living at home, parental anxiety, having children who were diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or anxiety and worries that a child may have an undiagnosed mental health disorder are all associated with parent burnout.
  • Burnout is strongly associated with depression, anxiety and increased alcohol consumption in parents.
  • Burnout is also strongly associated with the likelihood of engaging in “punitive parenting practices” like insulting, criticizing, screaming at, swearing at and/or physically harming children.
  • Children whose parents suffer burnout are more likely to have their own challenges, including internalizing, externalizing and attention behaviors.

Externalizing behaviors include fights with other kids, teasing others or not listening to rules. Internalizing behaviors include feeling unhappy, worrying or putting themselves down. Not being able to sit still or concentrate are examples of attention behaviors, the report said.

What about the guys?

A lot has been written about working women and burnout, in part because when schools closed and working parents went home, women reportedly took on the lion’s share of keeping kids on task with online learning.

But burnout can significantly impact men, as well. And according to Statista, men are more likely than women to try to get through it on their own, instead of seeking help.

A study in the journal BMC Public Health found women describe being emotionally exhausted, while men may feel more detached and emotionless.

According to the U.K.-based e-surgery.com blog, put together by medical experts, “Another common symptom of burnout for men is cynicism, a feeling of pessimism and irritability that can seep into other areas of life such as relationships. This can lead to inefficiency and a lack of productivity.”

In an opinion piece for The New York Times, Jonathan Malesic, author of “The End of Burnout,” wrote, “If we want to end burnout, we have to address the problem for men as well as women. And to address men’s burnout in particular, we have to acknowledge that consciously or not, our society still largely equates masculinity with being a stoical wage earner.”

Helping parents

The report is written to help parents and includes a checklist parents can use to determine if they are suffering from parental burnout. It’s indicative, not diagnostic.

The report also includes a section on self-care strategies to help avoid burnout. Many of them tell parents to give themselves a break, sometimes literally. The report says a 5- or 10-minute recovery break can do wonders if parents do something they enjoy, like physical activity or a short meditation.

Connections matter, too, so they counsel talking to someone you trust about your feelings. It’s important, they say, to stay connected to family and friends.

Mindfulness, cognitive-behavior skills, practicing gratitude and deep breathing are among good coping skills to develop.

But if burnout, depression or anxiety interferes with function or concentration, they suggest talking to a primary care doctor or seeking mental health help.

“We’re going to see these issues for a long time,” Melnyk told Ohio State’s Health & Discovery. “And not only is this affecting parents’ mental and physical health, but it has huge adverse implications for children. We’ve known for decades about what’s called the ‘emotional contagion hypothesis’: When parents are stressed, anxious or depressed, it runs off on the children.”

In an interview with Today, Gawlik noted how shamed some folks feel about feeling burned out in their parenting role. “Obviously, we all love our kids and everything but it’s just … too much on us all at once to be asked to do all of these different things.”

The researchers warned that the survey measured parental perception, not whether the child’s behavior actually matched the perception.

The report also includes a list of resources for families, including information for parents about anxiety in children and teens.

Mental health challenges are vexing teens in epidemic proportions in recent years. In a yearlong project on teens and anxiety, the Deseret News reported that “anxiety — the keep-you-up, leave-you-immobile variety — is this generation’s brick wall. Millions of youths struggle with it. Experts estimate one-fourth of teens — and as many as one-third of teen girls — have an anxiety disorder. That classification includes phobias, generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder and social anxiety. These are not insignificant problems, and they often travel with depression and other mental health challenges.”

Girls tend to cry when overwhelmed, while boys lash out, according to the series, called “Generation Vexed.”