Parents, take a break. It’s not only good for your mental health, but it’s also good for your kids.
According to research published in Clinical Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, the daily stress of parenting can turn into parent burnout and the kids are the ones that really suffer.
Parental burnout can lead to intense exhaustion, feelings of detachment from your children and make you insecure about your parenting abilities, said lead researcher Moïra Mikolajczak of UCLouvain said. It can actually have serious consequences for both parent and child, increasing parental neglect, harm, and thoughts about escape.
“In the current cultural context, there is a lot of pressure on parents,” Mikolajczak said. “But being a perfect parent is impossible and attempting to be one can lead to exhaustion. Our research suggests that whatever allows parents to recharge their batteries, to avoid exhaustion, is good for children.”
Over the course of two studies Mikolajczak and coauthors James J. Gross of Stanford University and Isabelle Roskam of UCLouvain found similar results with most French speaking parents in Belgium and then later with English speaking parents in the United Kingdom.
Noticing a theme
Through clinical encounters with good parents Mikolajczak and her team noticed they had become the opposite of what they were trying to be due to exhaustion.
Previous research had explored the causes of the parental burnout. However, little was known about the outcomes. The team decided to examine the results in two studies that followed parents over time.
The first study – conducted with the parents in Belgium – recruited parents through social networks, schools, pediatricians and other places to participate in research on “parental well-being and exhaustion.”
Researchers used three online surveys that were spaced about 5.5 month apart. More than 2,000 parents participated in the first survey and over 500 participated in the third survey.
The survey included:
- 22 questions parents’ emotional exhaustion, emotional distancing, and feelings of inefficacy
- 6 questions gauged their thoughts about escaping their family
- 17 questions measured the degree to which they neglected their childrens’ physical, educational and emotional needs
- 15 included questions about their tendency to engage in verbal, physical, or psychological violence
Three themes emerged around escape ideation, parental neglect, and parental violence, and a circular pattern was noticed. Parental burnout seemed to lead to increased parental neglect, which led to increased burnout, and so on. Parental violence appeared to be a clear consequence of burnout.
Also, even when researchers accounted for participants picking the more socially desirable responses, the patterns still held.
“We were a bit surprised by the irony of the results,” Mikolajczak said. “If you want to do the right thing too much, you can end up doing the wrong thing. Too much pressure on parents can lead them to exhaustion which can have damaging consequences for the parent and for the children.”
The second study conducted mostly in the U.K. saw similar results.
Together, the data suggest that parental burnout is likely the cause of escape ideation, parental neglect, and parental violence.
“Parents need to know that self-care is good for the child and that when they feel severely exhausted, they should seek help,” Mikolajczak said. “Health and child services professionals need to be informed about parental burnout so that they can accurately diagnose it and provide parents with the most appropriate care. And those engaged in policy and public health need to help raise awareness and lift the taboo on parental burnout, which will encourage parents to seek the help they need.”
As a result, additional studies with more participants are needed to further confirm the extent of the findings.