Do you often feel anxious or irritated, especially when you’re around your child? Do you often feel like you might snap, perhaps even threatening violence if they don’t do what you say? Are you so disconnected from them that you sometimes consider walking out and never coming back?
If you have, it’s possible that you’re suffering from parental burnout. Listener Kelly reached out to me recently because she has been diagnosed with parental burnout and wanted to know what research is available on this topic, and on how to protect her two-year-old from its impacts. We did some searching around in the literature and it actually didn’t take long to turn up the preeminent researchers in the field who actually work as a team and one of whom – Dr. Moira Mikolajczak, kindly agreed to talk with us.
We learned about the warning signs to watch out for that indicate that you might be suffering from parental burnout, and what to do about it if you are. We ran a bit over time at the end of the episode and I wasn’t able to ask about whether self-compassion might be a useful tool for coping with parental burnout but Dr. Mikolajczak and I emailed afterward and she agreed that it is – I’m hoping to do an episode on self-compassion in the future.
More information on Dr. Mikolajczak’s work on parental burnout can be found at https://www.burnoutparental.com/
The Parental Burnout Assessment, available in French and English, can be found here: https://en.burnoutparental.com/suis-je-en-burnout
If you need tools to help you in the short term, I’m running the Taming Your Triggers workshop starting Monday October 17. In the workshop you’ll learn the true sources of your triggers (hint: it’s not your child’s behavior!), how to feel triggered less often, and what to do when you do feel triggered, and how to repair your relationship with your child on the fewer occasions when it does still happen. Click here to learn more about and join the Taming Your Triggers workshop.
Click here to read the full transcript
So let’s meet the people we’re talking with today. First up is listener Kelly, who is enrolled in the Taming Your Triggers workshop and who reached out to us whether I’d be interested in doing this episode on Burnout since she’s been experiencing it for several months. Kelly is a postdoctoral researcher in the health field in the Netherlands and wanted to know more about how her experience of burnout is impacting her daughter. After we found the leading researchers on this topic, Kelly graciously agreed to join me as a co-interviewer even though she’s an introvert like me and is a little bit nervous about doing it. Welcome, Kelly.
Thanks for being here. And so here with us today is Dr. Moïra Mikolajczak whose bio on her website firstly states that she’s the mother of a daughter Louise and then secondly states that she’s Professor of Psychology and Health at the Catholic University of Louvain, which is now known as UC Louvain in Louvain-la-Neuve. She is a renowned expert in the field of emotional intelligence and has published several reference books on this topic. In 2015, she began a research program on parental burnout in conjunction with UC Louvain professor, Isabelle Roskam. Together they have published their results in several scientific articles and in two books, one for parents and one for professionals and I’ve read the one for parents which is currently only available in French but should be translated soon. With their Ph.D. student Maria-Elena Brianda, they have also developed and validated the first targeted treatment for parental burnout. Welcome, Moïra.
Thank you, Jen.
All right, so, I wonder if we could get started with a definition just to make sure that we’re all on the same page. Moïra, could you please tell us what is parental burnout and how common is it?
Yeah. So parental burnout is like its name indicates an exhaustion disorder. Parents feel totally exhausted by their parenting role. They feel that just thinking about what they have to do for or with their children make them feel that they’ve reached the end of their tether. And this exhaustion which is the first and main symptoms will lead to a second symptom which is the emotional distancing from one’s children. And then the parent will totally lose the pleasure of being with his or her children. And finally, he or she will experience a contrast between the parent she is now and the parent she has been before and wanted to be. So, the exertion, the emotional distancing, the loss of pleasure and the contrast are the main symptoms of parental burnout. And of course, these symptoms are often accompanied by guilt and shame for not being the parent one used to be and wanted to be.
Yeah, and I know that a lot of the research on this topic actually came out of research on burnout at work, but these are two very different things, right?
Yeah. So as you could see from the definition, they are both exhaustion syndromes, but the context of origin and of expression of the symptoms defer. So in the case of job burnout, people are exhausted by their work. They lose the pleasure of being at work, so they become distant from the beneficiaries of their work. And in the case of parental burnout, people are exhausted by their parenting role, become distant from their children, lose the pleasure of parenting and what is interesting is that one can be in parental burnout without being in job burnout and vice versa. And actually, what we have found in our research is that many parents in parental burnout kind of escape their parenting in their job. So they start to work more. And at the end, of course, these people experience the risk of being burnout in both spheres, and then this would obviously lead to depression.
Mm-hmm. Yeah. And Kelly, I think you found that there was some relationship between the two and you also mentioned escaping to your job to me as well when we were chatting beforehand, right?
Yeah, yeah, absolutely, yes. Like my home situation, there are so many challenges with my daughter when she was very young and I barely slept. I was finishing a Ph.D., which was going quite okay, but I was kind of escaping to work to deal with the home situation, but then again, at some point work got tougher and tougher as well. And I kind of felt like I was living those days off to the max as well to kind of escape from the job thing. So I really recognize that escaping part from both parts. But then I burned myself by doing so.
Yeah. And we’ll talk more about that in a minute. And I’m wondering about how curious this is, Moïra, I’ve seen in your research, numbers of 5% to 6%, there was a meta-analysis of the research on this topic that found a lot higher numbers, except actually a lower number in The Netherlands. Can you help us understand roughly how many parents suffer from this?
Yeah, so, of course, the differing prevalence comes from two factors. First, the cutoff that you use to decide that somebody is in burnout or not. If you change the cutoff obviously it will change the prevalence, and the other factor is the country that’s under an investigation. We have just finished a study on 40 countries around the world, very scattered. We had Cameroon, Togo, Australia, Belgium, Finland, of course, the US and a number of South American countries. And the results of the study shows that the prevalence of parental burnout really varies a lot across countries. And so in the countries with the highest prevalence rate, 9% of parents are in burnouts and in the countries with the lowest prevalence rates, less than 1% parents are in burnout. So there is a huge variation across countries. But basically, what we can say and what’s really obvious in the results of this study is that Western countries are much more exposed to parental burnout than other countries like Asian or African countries.
Oh, really, and I’m guessing that has something to do with social supports there, but we’ll probably come back to that.
Okay. And so, Kelly, question for you. I’m guessing there are some parents who are listening to this right now and are wondering if they have parental burnout, and there are others who are thinking, you know, come on, you know, if you feel burned out, why don’t you just try and stop doing as much and then you wouldn’t have a problem. And so can you help us to understand a bit about your lived experience with burnout? How did it start? And I know that you’re in therapy now, how did you get to the point where you realized you needed therapy? And what was that journey like for you?
Yeah, so I suppose it has been growing for quite some time, maybe even up to 10 years in a lighter variance of it. I guess, for me, it was a combination of my characters, some health issues have been going through. Like I said, that the tough time the first year is my daughter really, really hadn’t opened and then some challenges that work. So it was really like a lot of things that were out of my control, but then combined with my response to them that just led to this burnout. And most times, actually, I wasn’t aware of how much I was racing. And later my husband described it as if he was trying to stop a very heavy train and I just kept going and going and he couldn’t stop me. It was kind of weird because I just didn’t realize how I was doing. It was later when we talked about when I was a lot more calm. And he explained that to me when it dawned on me, I suppose. And it really hit me when I came back after holiday and went back to work and I felt quite okay at the start of the day. But when I came home, I was so shaken and stressed and I felt physically sick. And I just realized how much work was contributing to the story as well. And then finally, I had a breaking point. So just kind of when it already dawned that something was up. But then I had a breaking point about a month later when I was away for work. And I just had a blackout, total blackout. I was sitting on a wall there. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know where to go. I phoned my husband and he helped me to get to a train station and to find a train to come home and he came in the car halfway to pick me up. And then when I was in the car, I had more or less collapsed. I was crying for hours. I couldn’t do anything anymore. I was exhausted for the next few days. I was just in bed. I felt so sick as if I had a terrible flu. I was shocked because it was the day before I was quite well, a lot of energy. And then suddenly, I couldn’t do anything anymore. And my body ache. I was crying, very emotional. It was, yeah, it was very weird to experience such a change in a short time.
Probably quite scary too I would think.
Yes, yes. Although at that time, it was more – yeah, no I suppose it was scary. I feel like, I just let it come over me because I had absolutely no sense of what was going on anymore. Well, at that point, I suppose it’s still very important that at that point, I thought, it’s just one or two weeks of rest, and I’ll be okay again. And it took a lot, a lot of time to sink in that it wasn’t minor at all. And I still find it very hard to believe like, I’m still so tired mentally and physically, and we’re seven months in, I never expected that it would be so tough and big.
Yeah. And thank you for sharing that very personal experience with us. And if listeners are recognizing themselves in what Kelly’s saying then that could be one experience of it. There’s also other potential ways that it can come out. There was one paper that interviewed mothers about their experience of this. And some of them were saying, you know, I didn’t recognize myself, even now I don’t to be capable of such strong mood swings and violent with my own children. Another parent was saying, I got so scared and destabilized, I completely stopped feeling confident as a mother. A third one said, I couldn’t share this. I was very afraid of other people’s judgement and misunderstanding. And I shared these things with Kelly. And she said, “No, I didn’t feel there’s so much”. There was another one about, you know, keep running fast and sticking to my habits rather than stopping and thinking and Kelly said, “Yes, that was me”. So different people that seems to experience burnout in different ways. And, Kelly, I know you’re curious about the factors that determine the impact of parental burnout on a child as well. I wonder if Moïra can speak to that part a little bit.
Yeah. Jen, would you mind if I say something before going to that, something about cortisol because I say these are our new findings that have just been accepted for publication. So you could have not found them. But they are very relevant and related to what Kelly said. Do you mind if I say something?
So yeah, Kelly’s symptoms are, of course, this total collapse is very surprising to her. But it’s not that surprising to me because we have just finished a study on hundreds of parents in burnout, which we compared to hundreds of matching controlled parents, so parents who are not in burnout, but who have exactly the same social democratic characteristics, so the same family situations and children etc. And what we looked at was the hair cortisol. So hair cortisol gives you an idea of the level of cortisol, so the stress hormone that the person has released over the last three months, so it gives you an objective idea of how much the person was stressed over the last three months. And what we found was that the level of cortisol of parents in burnout was twice as high as controlled parents. And the level of cortisol of burnout parents was even higher than the level of cortisol of people suffering from severe chronic pain. It was also higher than the level of cortisol of person who are victims of marital abuse. So, this means that parents in burnout are under a tremendously high amount of stress. And so, at the end, this level of stress finally damages the body to the point where the hypothalamic pituitary axis which is the adrenal axis, which is the axis that secretes cortisol will totally collapse. And at that point, the parents will not have any energy anymore because cortisol is what gives you energy. And when you’re under stress, you secrete more cortisol. But at the end, when your axis is broken, you cannot secrete any cortisol. So you don’t have any energy to face life so that’s why these people totally collapsed and cannot wake up the next morning. I mean, they can open their eyes, obviously, but they do not have energy to just get out of their bed. So yeah, that’s probably what Kelly went through, the breakdown of her HPA axis.
I can add something to that, Moïra. That makes sense looking back now because I had a very important big presentation about two hours before that. And when the adrenaline settled down, that was the point where this blackout happens. So looking back, yes, that makes total sense. Just at that point it didn’t yet.
And so what we’re wondering from that, I mean, that experience, it’s incredibly difficult to deal with and of course, what we’re trying to do as we’re going through this is raise a child and Kelly is fortunate that she has a partner on hand who can help with that, and obviously, is a partner in that. But there are many parents who are facing this who are on their own with their children. And so what kind of impacts does this have on the child.
So in fact, when the parent is only exhausted parental burnout mostly has effect on the parents and not on the children. But parental burnout starts to have effect on children when the parent becomes emotionally distant. So when the second symptom kicks in, an emotional distancing will bring about either a neglect or a violence be it verbal or physical, or a combination of both neglect and violence. And it is really the neglect and violence that will have an impact on the child. And obviously, as you can imagine, these are most damaging if the partner or the spouse is also burnout or is never or rarely at home because he or she’s working too much. So the effect of parental burnout on the children are mitigated by the support or the presence of the partner. If the partner is okay, he or she can compensate and the child will be affected might be affected, but not as much as if the parent is alone with the children. And so the way to reduce the impact of burnout on the children is of course, to try to elicit support if one does not have a partner or a spouse to reduce the time that one will spend with one’s children, and so reduce the likelihood of either neglect or violence.
But if I am alone with my daughter, so I take the majority of the care for my daughter by myself, how can I mitigate the negative effects then if I am alone, and obviously in the current situation with Corona a lot of support is not possible, or in our case at the moment actually none? What can I do then?
Yeah, so that’s indeed a tricky situation and the Coronavirus makes it even trickier because usually you could elicit the support from neighbors or from a babysitter or from other people in the network. So in this situation, the most important would be the balance between your needs and those of your child. So obviously your child needs you. I don’t know how old is she?
Two and a half.
Two and a half, yeah. So she needs you at that point. At the same time, she’s probably old enough to understand that you cannot play with her all the time. And maybe you could explain to her that you will play with her or do something with her for a moment and then you will need time on your own and you will put her in front of TV or in the garden to play if you have a garden. But basically, you cannot spend 24 hours with your child. That’s not just possible. Not for you and not for her because you will just even more be burned out, that’s possible and she will feel it. So it’s better to say, okay, for this moment, I’m totally with you. But then I need time on my own and you will take care of yourself alone, but of course, on an activity that she can do at her age, she’s very young indeed.
Yeah. Thank you. Yeah.
Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And I’m definitely using screentime to get rest and be a better parent at the other end of it. Then I wouldn’t have been if I hadn’t done that. And I think you’ve sort of alluded to this already in terms of prevalence in different cultures. But I wonder if you can kind of bring this up to a higher level and think about what does it mean to be a good parent in today’s society, and I often use the acronym WEIRD on the show, which stands for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic, because it seems as though a lot of it is probably tied up in that and also in the systems that leaves Kelly alone with her daughter for long periods of time with no family support around. So can we just talk through that a little bit and what it does mean to be a good parent in our society?
Yeah. So, in fact, there are two points. First, the pressure that is totally new in history because all these positive parenting stuff, this is totally new. Less than 100 years ago, the first laws were written to prevent children from working more than 12 hours under the ground in demand. So 10 years ago, children could work not more than 12 hours but still 12 hours it was okay. But it’s important to realize that. So, over the last century, the view of the child has totally changed. Now, the interest of the child is above everything and parents are subordinated to the child’s best interest. And this puts a lot of pressure on parents. Two generations ago, parents just had to maintain their children in good health and send them to school. Today, you have to make sure that your child is of course healthy, well developing, but not only at the cognitive level, but also at the emotional level, social level to make sure that he can develop all his abilities, etc, etc. This is just crazy. And this is really specific to Western countries. And parents in Western countries have just much more risks. Burnout with the Western countries is much higher. And so what is crazy is that a Western parent with one or two children is much more at risk to burnout than an African parents with eight or nine children. So we have come to a point where we have to say stop. Of course, children are important and of course, we have to take care of them, but we cannot exhaust ourselves for the children because at the end, it’s not good for us. But it’s not good for the children. It backfires on them because parental burnout leads to neglect and violence. So that’s not good for anyone. And so yeah, there is this huge pressure which comes both from the state because before the west king in his family, and if a child was not behaving correctly, the father could even beat the child. And I’m not recommending that anyone beats one’s child understand me when – but I mean that there was no control. There was no state control over what was happening in the families. Nowadays, if your child has the health care visit, you would be very concerned if the child had fallen in the stairs just the day before because you would hear that the social services or the health care services would believe that you are beating or being violent with your child. So there is this monitoring all the time. And there is not only the monitoring of the state, there is also the monitoring of the schools. And this is the worst, the monitoring of the other parents, and all the pressure on the social networks. Of course, everyone posts on Facebook and other social networks, only the very best of one’s parenting life. So you will post only the picture of the most beautiful cake that you made for your children. But you will never post a picture of your child having a tantrum, or you losing patience or whatever. But everyone seems to forget that everyone posts only the best of one’s parenting. And so when we’re on social networks, we just feel a tremendously high level of pressure on our shoulders, and that’s not good. And so that’s part of the problem. And the other part of the problem that you have mentioned before is that in our Western countries, we don’t have a lot of social support. As you said, we are very alone. Sometimes there is only a mother or a father but most of the time there was only the mother and the father, but two person to raise a child is not enough, in fact, and in Africa, you know, the proverb, they say that it takes a village to raise a child. And this means that we need social support to deal with the pressure and the stress of parenting. And Western parents are quite left alone in this task.
Yeah, and I just want to contrast that with something that I read from the paper that they interviewed mothers about their experience of parental burnout, one of the respondents said, “I am the one who is responsible for what they will be later. What they will become depends on what I do now.” And it’s so clear the weight that this person feels on their shoulders, and that motherhood is the primary purpose of her life and raising these children to achieve the goals that she set for them is her meaning in life and that’s such a different scenario from the way we’ve raised children historically and the way that people around the world raised children today.
Exactly. What’s crazy is that, of course, parenting influences the child’s development. This is obvious. But it’s only a part of the instances, school, the society, the grandparents, the neighbors, there are many, many instances. And of course, we cannot forget that genes have a huge influence. So a lot of things are already set up from the very beginning in the child’s genes. So the environment has only partial control over what the child will become. We just put too much pressures on our shoulders as parents because we can only influence a portion of our children’s development.
Yeah, for sure. And there’s a pressure to feel as though we are responsible so much more than that.
So, I wonder what some risk factors are for parental burnout and I found a whole host of them from the literature, I wonder if you can maybe tell us about what are some of the most important ones that you see.
So there are indeed a number of factors that can increase the risk of parental burnout. So some factors very slightly increase the risk. For instance, the number of children, you might believe that if you have five children, your risk to burnout is much more important than if you have only one. No, it’s just slightly increased risk to have five children. Another factor that has a very small effect, in spite of what we could think is the particularities of the child. So if you have a child with learning difficulties or a difficult child, that slightly increases your risk, but there are a number of other factors that weighs more heavily on the balance. And these are first the personality of the parent. And one of the major risk factor is parental perfectionism. You may have, some people have had a very difficult childhood, and they want to become the parent that they wished they had. So they want it to be the perfect parent for their children. And these parents are much more at risk of parental burnout. Another personality factor that will strongly influence the risk is your level of emotional competence. This means your ability to identify, to express, to deal with your emotion and we stress more broadly. So parenting is a very highly stressful job. It brings about a lot of emotion. And of course, people who are skilled to manage emotion are much less at risk of parental burnout. Beyond the personality of the parent, another factor that will heavily influence the risk of parental burnout is the quality of what we call the co-parenting. The quality of the team that you form with your partner. If you support each other, either concretely or emotionally, if you agree on the education and values, if you value what your partner or spouse bring to the children, this will decrease the risk of parental burnout. If, on the contrary, you are not supported by your partner concretely nor emotionally, if your partner denigrates you, if your partner and you are never in agreement on the education and values that will increase your level of parental burnout. Another important factor is the quality of the child rearing practices. A factor that will strongly increase the risk of parental burnout is inconsistency. For example, if one day I say, okay, you can have 10 candies and the next day I say, no, I said it’s one candy a day. If the rules vary all the time, the child knows it, and he will ask until you give in. And so you will be much more exhausted at the end. But of course, as you can see, there are some vicious circles in that. If I’m exhausted and if my child ask again and again for another candy at the end, I would say, yeah, okay, you know what, yeah, just take your candy, take the whole box if you want, and then it will be much more difficult to be consistent again. And so, exhaustion brings inconsistency, inconsistency increase exhaustion in a vicious circle. Personality factors, co-parenting factors, child rearing practices are factors that weighed heavily on the balance and that strongly influenced the risk of parental burnout. Another factor that weighed heavily in western countries but not in other countries is leisure time or time for oneself. Western parents need time to just relax, time for themselves, time to take care of themselves without taking care of the children. And when Western parents lack of that time, it strongly increases the risk of parental burnout. So that’s a factor that is really specific to Western parents. But at the end, the important thing to understand is that even though each of the factor that I have cited can increase the risk of parental burnout, no factor is sufficient in itself. So what really brings about parental burnout is an imbalance between all the factors that increase parental stress, and the factors that decrease it. We all have factors whether there are personality factors or situational factors that increase our parenting stress and we have factors that decrease it. And usually when we are feeling okay in our parenting, this means that we have more factors that alleviate parenting stress or at least as many factors that alleviate as factors that increase it. And the common point between all parents in burnout is that they’ve had for too long, too many factors that increase parenting stress, and not enough resources to compensate for that effect. And so they’re in severe and chronic imbalance between stressors and resources. And that’s really the root of parental burnout.
Can I ask something here? The risk factors that you mentioned here, I definitely recognize but it also recognize them as factors that’s exacerbate the situation. For example, the parenting strategies definitely got worse in my first few months of my burnout and that made situation with my daughter a lot more difficult as well. So I’m wondering here, to what degree are you sure of the cause and effect here? Is it really a causative effect or is there an association?
So some factors that definitely causal but this does not mean that they cannot become the consequences that will in turn so as I said, they’re really vicious circles. So, yeah, there are a lot of vicious circles here. But the reason why I say that these factors that I have mentioned are causal is that when we work, if I may say so, when we work on these factors during interventions, and when we reduce them, we see that the level of parental burnout decreases. So there is a causal role of these factors but obviously, they can also be the consequence of parental burnout. So some parents, I can give an example imagine that usually I manage stress quite well, but I fall in burnout because my daughter has had a very severe illness, because at that time, I had no support for my husband, no support for my family, I was very stressed about whether she might die or not. Every day I had to go to the hospital, which was far away from my house. And at the same time, make sure that my other child is taken care of by someone. At the end, of course, I will be exhausted and this will deteriorate my ability to manage stress. So in this case, I did not have to respect her of being someone unable to manage stress, but at the end, I will become someone unable to manage stress because of my burnout. So, yeah, vicious circles. And some causes can become consequences about this.
Yeah, yeah, that makes sense. And I’m wondering if we can bring this up a level. We’ve talked a lot about kind of individual factors and you mentioned how perfectionism and the person’s personality related to that is a big factor here. Another one that I found in the literature is parents who are not white and cisgender and heterosexual and wanting to compensate for the pressure that society is going to put on their child and relationship. And, of course, we’ve talked about looking on social media platforms and seeing how perfect everybody else’s family is. And what I’m thinking in this is the extent to which parental burnout is a function of societal role expectations on mothers who are sort of told, you know, pursue your personal dreams as an individual, because that’s what it means to be American to be Western, and at the same time, be everything to your family, and do everything you can for your child. And if you can’t do both of those things to the max, then there’s something wrong with you. And you have to go to the doctor and you need to seek treatment and medication and instead of the problem being located in the societal expectations, what do you think about that?
Exactly. Yeah, what you say totally resonates and I’m indeed concerned as a psychologist about that because obviously as psychologists, we work at the individual level and sometime family levels. But of course, we do not work at the social level and it’s a little bit annoying to try to fix, you cannot see me but I use I don’t know the term.
Air quotes I think is the word.
What’s the word?
You’re making air quotes with your fingers to fix that person.
Exactly, exactly. So it’s annoying to fix the parent, whereas, indeed, what should be changed in priority are the social pressure and expectation. So you’re totally right. And these should be changed by politics, decision makers, maybe sociologist, I don’t know. And awaiting that I and my colleagues as psychologists, we are kind of forced to help people cope with this situation. But I do agree with you that the ideal would of course, be an action at the social level. And to come back to what you said about parents who are not white, cisgender, heterosexual etc. So for the moment, we have very preliminary data about parents in the same sex families, and what we found the data are very, very preliminary, but there is one finding that emerge very, very clearly is that the weight of wanting to be a good parent or a perfect parent, weighed much more in the balance of same sex parents than in the balance of classic heterosexual parents, meaning that you’re right, people who do not fit with the standards, they make even more efforts to be good parents, and this put them much more at risk of parental burnout and my fear is that at the end some people could say, yeah, you see, of course, same sex parents cannot be allowed to be parents. Look, they cannot do the job. But the pressure, the social pressure is so much bigger on them.
Yeah. So thank you for helping us to understand more about that societal perspective, I think it is really important that we understand that that this is not an individual problem that we necessarily need to fix. We need to help people in the short term, but also change the way we approach this from a society. And I’m wondering, how can a person know what is their risk of parental burnout? Or if they’re already burnt out? You develop an assessment related to that, right?
Yeah, so we developed indeed, an instrument called the Parental Burnout Assessment, which is a 23-item questionnaire, a self-reported questionnaire that allows the parent to know where she or he is, how close he or she is, to burnout. So this questionnaire can be, parents can take the questionnaire on a website.
Yeah, we’ll put a link to it. I took it myself.
We’ll put a link to it in the references and it’s in English. Yey!
Exactly, the questionnaire is in English. Available in French and English and parents receive automatic feedback on his or her score. And so you can see whether you’re totally not in burnout but which case you wouldn’t take the test, I believe, or if at some point you will be at high risk or probably in burnout or totally in burnout. And if you’re at risk of burnout, or even in burnout, the website will allow you and invite you to take another test, which is called the balance of risk and resources. And of course, this does not include all the factors that can influence the race to burnout, but just a factor that has been shown to weigh the most in the balance, and then it will allow you to see on which factors you should work, if I may say so in priority, and which resources you don’t have and that you could add to reduce the risk or to improve your situation.
Yeah, I definitely recognized what you just said like if you totally not burnout, you probably wouldn’t take the test. Because to me, I wouldn’t have believed I was burned out if it wasn’t that clear that I was stuck on that wall in the other side of Europe. And I couldn’t even get home because like my rule was, if you have some energy left, just keep going. I did so until I almost have none left.
Well, that’s an interesting point, Kelly. I mean, okay, so I’m pretty sure I’m not burned out. I took the test because I wanted to see what it was like for the purpose of doing this interview. But if you clearly were burned out and you wouldn’t have taken the test, can you give us sort of a criteria that parents can use to say, okay, if I’m feeling this or if I’m noticing this, I should at least go and take this test to learn more.
I would say that the two most important warning signs, if I may say so, are fatigue that does not disappear with a few good night’s sleep, and irritability, and you noticing that you’re more impatient, more irritable, that you become angry for little things that would not have made you angry before. And of course, there are weeks where we feel tired and irritable. But if the situation persists for two or three weeks, then you should and if you observe that it’s especially the case when you’re with your kids, and left the kids when you’re at work, if you feel tired, irritable, especially when you arrive at home and not when you’re at work, then it’s a good sign that you might want to take the test
That resonates so much what you just said. When I was thinking about that question, I was like, yes, irritability is what I would answer. And then I also noticed that you see that a lot more at home because you’re just so much more yourself than at work. At work, you keep on a mask to a certain degree and you pretend to be a nice person. And at home, everything comes out, especially children or amongst children because they can just press your buttons so well. Yeah. So I totally agree on what you said.
Kelly, you had a question about what you should tell your daughter as well, right?
Yeah. So, my daughter is 2-1/2, and she’s quite verbal, and she understands quite a lot of things. So I’ve been telling her I have been too busy for a long time and that makes me really tired. But I also noticed it gets her confused sometimes because like obviously you go to sleep when you’re tired, because that’s what I always tell her or you take a rest when you’re tired. I’m struggling a bit on how I should talk to her about this and what specifically even what words I could use. And yeah, obviously that will vary by age but do you give any hint to how I could approach this with her?
Yeah, so it’s very good to tell her the truth, like you said, mommy’s very tired. And you can say and sometimes this because I’m so tired, it makes me too impatient, too irritable and I realized that I shouldn’t. So you can totally, if you’re still feeling irritable, you can say that so that she knows that the code is the fatigue, and not especially her, even though obviously she contributes to it. But you know, that’s important. So I will come back to your specific situation in a moment. But one thing that I wanted to say is that, of course, parents should not tell your children that they are in parental burnout because then the children believe that it’s their fault as children, but it’s the parenting situation as a whole. It’s this imbalance between risk and resources and not only the children even if you have a very difficult child, a difficult child alone cannot lead a parent to burnout. So not if there are enough resources to compensate. So the word parental burnout should not be employed in front of children. So that’s the first thing. But of course, it’s good to tell children that we are feeling too tired, too tired, and that we are so tired that even sleeping is not enough. Because then children can relate because when children are tired, we send them to bed. Usually they can see themselves that they’re tired. And the next day they are feeling full of energy and yeah the day starts again. And so they experience that sleep helps you recover from fatigue, and we can explain them that we have been so tired, so tired, so tired that even sleeping doesn’t help. It’s like a car. There is no fuel anymore. And so the car doesn’t seem or not enough and there is no gas station available. So it’s like, for the moment, something is it will take time to refill the reservoir. I don’t know the term.
Yeah. That works.
Of course your daughter is very, very young. But she has probably experienced that for her sleeping is helpful. And so you can tell her, you know, when you sleep the next day, you’re feeling full of energy. And so sleep for you is very good. But for mommy, it does not work anymore. Mommy has gone too far and now I will need a long time to recover. You see even when I wake up, I’m already as tired as you are feeling at the very end of the day. So you see at the end of a long day, how tired you feel and sometime you fall asleep in the car because you’re so tired, mommy feels that all the time. And so you see, when sometimes you’re too tired, you become irritable, you cry, because sometimes life is more complicated when we are tired and we are more impatient, more irritable, and life is not going well. Mommy experienced that all the time. And then the children can usually relate to that. Of course, two years and a half is very young. But I suspect that if you say that she’s very verbal, and clever, she will probably understand that.
Yeah, yeah, I think she gets it to a certain point and she asked me, “Mommy, are you overwhelmed?” Then she’ll accept it a bit more if I asked her to give me some space sometimes. I’m wondering a bit this balance that I’m struggling with myself, to what degree do we need to protect our children first being honest with them, because, like, obviously, I want to tell her that I was too busy for a long time maybe I worked too hard but on the other hand, I want to protect her as well. And like, as you said before, never tell them it’s parental burnouts. They’re not the cause. How can I navigate this?
So, of course, I don’t know your daughter. So I don’t know if she can understand the notion of working too hard. So maybe at this time, at this point in time, you may not want to explain her the causes of – you can say that you work too hard. But you can also say that you have just a physical issue that makes you very, very, very tired. She does not need at this point to know all the causes because maybe that’s too difficult to understand for her. So I would just concentrate on the current symptoms and maybe, you know, if you could draw, I don’t know the term in English. The term in French, Jen is [Inaudible] [45:46], you know, to show her a kind of battery. You know to draw, but even better than drawing where you can go from full battery, it’s all green to very low battery, and that’s all red. And explain to the child that over the day your energy fluctuates, and at some point, you are all green. And that’s moments when you will have energy to play with her when you will be good. And at other moments, your level of energy is very low. It’s in dread. And at that moment, it’s very hard for you to have the energy to play. And at that moment, it’s best for both of you. If she can watch a little TV, play a little bit in the garden, play with her dolls and then explain to her that this helps you to reseal the level of energy so that then you can move the cursor again, a little bit to the green so that she can see that her efforts to give you some space it works because then you recover a little bit.
Interesting that you say that because we have a bucket at home and I have little felt balls in there. They’re called mommy’s energy balls. So when we do something, I take some balls out. And like at the end of it, look, my bucket is almost empty now, or when we have a fight, I take a few extra balls out to show that it weighs heavily on me, and she loves playing with them as well, like she’ll steal my energy balls.
And that’s very good. I mean, but of course, she’s very, very, very young and at such a young age, you cannot expect her to understand things as much as a child at age five or six would understand and even a child age five or six, even with a lot of empathy, it’s still a child. And so our children can only protect us to a certain extent. We are the parents, we are the ones who protect our children. They can understand that at some point, at some moments, they have to protect us but of course they will never be able to understand that to the point that we as parents would need that they understand.
So it will always be frustrating, I mean, even if you use very good metaphor as you use, because it’s exactly what – you do exactly what you should do, but she’s only two years and a half.
Yeah. And so that sort of brings us to where we’re heading towards, which is once we can understand that this is an issue for us and we can talk with our family about it, talk with your child about it, while we’re working on societal change so that we don’t feel as though we have to fulfill these crazy expectations, what treatments are available for parental burnout that you’ve seen to be effective?
So from what we’ve seen from our research, parents in burnout do need two things to recover. First, to be listened in a truly authentic, non-judgmental way because our friends, some will understand that we are tired, other will say, yeah, but you know, just ignore her, just keep going. It’s not that bad. No, that’s not what exhausted parents need. Exhausted parents need someone to hear that they are so distressed that they would sometimes prefer to kill themselves, or just to leave their family without leaving any address. That’s the point. That’s the extent to which they are distressed. So they need someone that can understand that. And that’s half of well, again, air crushes or I don’t remember the term.
Air quotes, yes.
Half of the recovery. Air quotes, yeah. The other thing is to rebalance the balance because if you cannot rebalance your balance, you cannot get out of parental burnout. At some points, you have either to remove some stressors or to add resources. But if you can do neither of these, it will be very hard to get out of burnout. So basically, you have to draw your balance and draw a balance on a sheet of paper, and put all the factors that contribute to increase your parenting stress, and all the factors that contribute to alleviate it. And then among these factors, which are the ones that you could just throw away? Parents will say nothing. And that’s why you need a psychologist because when you draw your balance, you say, I cannot change anything, I’m stuck. And so a psychologist will show you that there are resources to which you have not thought about, but that you can try to get, of course, lockdown related to the COVID situation makes that increasingly difficult. But in normal times, there are resources that you can solicit. And on the other hand, even though you have the impression that there are absolutely no stressors that you could remove of your balance, the psychologist will progressively lead you to understand that if your child has two or three extracurricular activity, you can just get two of them and just keep only one. And the parents will say, yeah, but he loves blah, blah, blah. Okay, either you can find someone else to bring the child to his or her extracurricular activity, but if it’s not possible, and if you’re that tired, you will have to get some things out for the sake of yourself, but also for your children, because the child may like to go to three extracurricular activity. But if he has a mother or a father who’s shouting all the time, that’s not good. It’s better to have one and have a father or mother who is happy to spend time with the child. So the treatment of course, depends on what the parent has in his balance, so that’s why ideally, treatment is personalized. This being said, we can and we did run group treatments where each session was dedicated to a factor that weighed heavily on the balance. So one session was dedicated to how to cope with the social pressure, another session dedicated to say, to how can we increase our emotional competencies, another session dedicated to perfectionism, another session dedicated to the parenting practices that weighs more, another co-parenting, etc. And then progressively we lead people to rebalance their balance. So that’s the way to do it.
If I can add to that I also learned with my psychologists together to let go of caring so much about how my parenting comes across to other people. It just is not very not a physical burden or like the way it would be driving somewhere or having to bring people children somewhere. But it is certainly one of the things that really helped me. And in that line, I dropped my Facebook accounts, which really, really helped as well.
I just have a question, if you have any suggestions of things I could do when I’m totally overwhelmed, me and my daughter are together, there’s no help available. What can I do in such a moment where I just need a bit of time alone? Note that she’s so young. She doesn’t care for TV much. So she’ll just walk away after five minutes. Sometimes she’ll be okay if I go to the next room, but otherwise, the other times she just follows me everywhere I go. Do you have any suggestions what you could do in like really stressful moments how to handle it in a way that that my child won’t feel guilty or responsible for what’s happening as well?
Mm-hmm. Hard indeed especially if she does not care for screens because screens are a wonderful babysitter. And do you have a garden?
Yeah, yeah, we do fortunately. We got a trampoline as well, which was a big savior last few weeks.
Yeah. So the idea, of course, is to find an activity that she liked sufficiently to ensure that she can do alone, of course, because if it’s an activity she loves, but she needs you then it’s just not possible. Of course, it’s hard to know without knowing you better and your daughter, but what you could also do, perhaps, the young age of the child mixings and the lockdown, the combination of both makes things more difficult. But another possibility is to make like a schedule. Is she already at school, no, she’s in yeah.
She goes to daycare a morning a week.
And usually the days at daycare are structured as our days at school for instance. And so the child knows that from 9 to 9:30 there is this and then 9:30 to 10, there is this and blah blah. So you could also possibly do a kind of schedule and then you say, okay, from 9 to 9:30 or if it’s too long from 9 to 9:15, then maybe you can play in the garden and then mommy will play with you from this and this, etc. And that kind of thing where the child can know what happens next and be sure that at some point, it will lead her to this activity, to this moment with you. And so she knows that okay, she plays until you come and get her. You see what I mean?
Yeah, yeah, I actually just yesterday I printed cards to make a day schedule to see if that could work. So it’s interesting that you bring that up because I didn’t have so much confidence in it yet. I’m very happy to give it a try now and see if it works.
But of course the moments alone should always be rewarded by something she loves either an activity that she really loves or a moment with you or I don’t know, at one point at home, my rule is one candy a day. So I don’t know which will you have, but if there is one candy a day, it could come after one of these moments alone. You see what I mean? So that she’s really rewarded for this in various ways over the day.
Okay. I’m curious if the rewarding parts how that would work with her because I think she would actually – I’m not sure maybe we’re gonna go the wrong way here. But I think she might accept it as this is just something we do. There are some quiet me alone time and afterwards, we play again together. Do you think she’d really need that reward?
It’s important that if for her time alone is difficult or more difficult, yes, she definitely needs a reward for having spent some time alone. Definitely. Yes. Absolutely.
Thank you for the suggestion.
And on your hand, so it’s terrible because indeed, people who were already at the verge of burnout or already in burnout are suffering a nightmare in this lockdown situation. And I can tell because in Belgium, we’ve created a phone number or a hotline for parents in distress. And I’m one of the person on this line. And we can really hear how much this lockdown make the situation much worse for parents who were already exhausted. Because in fact, this lockdown, it added the number of stressors, the number of solicitation, the number of domestic chores, etc. And on the other hand, it removes all the resources that are usually available. There is no babysitter anymore. No neighbors that you can go, no grandparents, no leisure, no restaurants to forget about your parenting for an evening. And so it’s really a very hard situation because it creates for all parents an imbalance between the stressors and resources. But if you were already in a situation of imbalance then it’s even worse. And so of course you will need a lot of strength and courage to go through this situation. Yeah, I can see how difficult it is to be stuck with your daughter and just with your daughter, very young daughter in this lockdown situation.
Yeah, so I know when you go to https://www.burnoutparental.com/, isn’t it? That you have a lot of resources there. There’s the link to take the test as well that I took and I’ll put a direct link to that too. And also the phone number that you mentioned and I assume the advices in French and that resources available for French speakers, that also there are obviously other hotlines available in other places to reach out to if parents do need help. So Kelly, I just wanted to thank you for having the courage to reach out and request this topic and working with me to figure out who we wanted to talk to, and that we found, obviously, one of the preeminent leaders in the field and for coming on and sharing your experience, and I’m really grateful that we were able to do this.
Well, thank you as well for taking it on. And I enjoyed a lot more. I was very nervous but I enjoyed a lot.
It was great than I thought it would be. And then Moïra, thank you for being game to take this on and for working with us through technical difficulties and sharing your work with us that I think is so important and so needed in the world.
Thank you so much for the interview. I really apologize for my English level.
Oh, goodness. Don’t ever apologize for that. No. Please don’t apologize for that. There’s no reason to at all. And so everything that we talked about today, all of the references, all of the studies can be found at YourParentingMojo.com/Burnout.
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About the author, Jen
Jen Lumanlan (M.S., M.Ed.) hosts the Your Parenting Mojo podcast (www.YourParentingMojo.com), which examines scientific research related to child development through the lens of respectful parenting.