Parent Burnout: What It Is & How To Cope With It
Parent Burnout: What It Is & How To Cope With It

Parent Burnout: What It Is & How To Cope With It

Raising children in 2023 is tough. With families often living far apart and communities more splintered, there’s less support for modern parents compared to previous generations. On top of that, the narrative around parenting has changed, with parents encouraged to put their children at the centre of every decision. As a result, today’s parents are stressed, exhausted and burnt out. Here, parenting psychologist Dr Emma Svanberg explains what leads to burnout and the strategies parents can put in place to cope better.

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The nature of parenting has changed

This generation of parents tries to be more and do more. They are trying to validate their children's needs and allow them emotional expression in a way many of them are learning for the first time. Unlike previous generations, where parenting was supported by family, community and state support, today's parents are also raising children with very little help and often far away from their own families. And they are parenting in an environment which produces chronic stress due to financial constraints, work pressures, hostile policies and recovering from a global pandemic. At the same time, this generation of children are also dealing with mental health struggles and coping with the repercussions of the pandemic and lockdowns. In many families this has created a real vicious cycle of stress and burnout. 

Priorities are different

Many parents now are consciously trying to parent in a different way to their own parents. In the 80s and 90s, parenting was defined by instilling personal achievement, independence and success in your children. This era saw the birth of the helicopter parent. For this generation of parents, who have access to an enormous amount of information about the consequences of parenting, the priority is raising emotionally healthy children. If the mantra of our childhood was 'children should be seen and not heard', this generation are being raised on the premise that children should not only be seen but also respected. 

It's a high-pressured job

Information about the importance of parenting – such as the role of attachment on a developing brain – has become mainstream, so we are highly aware of the vital role of parents. As a result, there is a focus on how we can raise emotionally intelligent, self-aware and compassionate children. However, individually, we are parenting in a much more high-pressure environment – so these goals can create conflict within homes. 

There has also been a significant shift towards shared parenting, reflecting the expectation we have when we are in a couple that our roles should be equal. However, women in heterosexual relationships still find themselves the ‘default parent’, and this can create resentment and conflict. On a positive note, our idea of what ‘family’ has also changed, with more children being raised by same sex parents, non-gender conforming parents, lone parents and in blended families. We are re-imagining what a family can look like, often with the child at the centre of our decisions.

Many parents felt invisible throughout the lockdowns – and this has also created another shift. We are dealing with collective trauma and the impact of years of chronic stress, which has had an impact on parents and children. However, many families found that living outside of the usual social norms changed things and are now finding ways to define different visions of family life, including increased flexible working and moving to home-schooling permanently.

It means that, if we are feeling stressed and overwhelmed, there are probably very good reasons for that. We are parenting with high expectations in an environment of little support and value – that's a recipe for frustration and stress. 

Many are frustrated or disappointed with parenting

To me, it's a combination of expectations not being realised, and parenting in challenging circumstances. Parenting is hard work. You are raising human beings who have strong opinions about what they need, and we're often doing it while isolated from other adults. At the same time, our own expectations of what we are able to ‘achieve’ are often unrealistic and based on idealised images of family life. This is added to with a wealth of parenting related information which can, collectively, imply there is a ‘right’ way of parenting or that there are easy solutions. When we follow advice which then doesn't work for us, it can leave us feeling more despairing. 

Children can be EMOTIONAL BAROMETERS. If we are feeling highly stressed, they will often SHOW THIS IS THEIR BEHAVIOUR

Signs of burnout

Burnout comes as a result of chronic stress – and what's really tricky about stress is that we can get really used to being in a stressed-out state. Many of the people I work with don't know what it feels like to be in a state of relaxation. It's made more complicated because we live in a society which also rewards us being productive and purposeful, so rest and recovery can seem ‘lazy’ or indulgent. Stress is a physiological response, so if we are in chronic stress, we often notice physiological signs. Perhaps we aren't sleeping as well as usual, or our appetite has changed. We might be using strategies to try and zone out – like watching more TV, scrolling on our phone, drinking more alcohol. When we're stressed, we are working from a survival state so we might also notice that our memory is poorer, we're dropping things or bumping into things. This can also affect our mood as we're less able to control our impulses, so we might be snappy and irritable. 

Burnout impacts responses and reactions

When we are burned out, everything in our mind and body is screaming for respite and recovery. We are emotionally and physically drained, and it is incredibly hard to parent from a place of such total exhaustion. Yet this is what many (possibly the majority) of parents are doing right now.

To recover from burnout, we naturally withdraw. At work, we would often take time off. We're not often able to do this as parents, so instead we emotionally withdraw. We find it harder to enjoy being with our children, and distance ourselves. However, because our children need to stay close to us to feel safe, this can lead to a difficult cycle where we withdraw, and our children become clingier or find ways to pull us closer to them again (this might look like tantrums, or bedtime anxiety), which leaves us feeling even more burdened. 

Recognise negative patterns

A theme that often comes up either in therapy or in The Village parenting community is that a parent will talk about being locked in a difficult pattern with their child. Perhaps this is a toddler who is protesting a lot, or a baby who seems inconsolable. This might happen for different reasons – sometimes it is in response to stress, but if parents are overwhelmed and burned out themselves, this behaviour can feel like an insurmountable challenge. 

It can be a difficult step to take when we are already overloaded, but it can be helpful to remember two things. First, children can be emotional barometers. If we are feeling highly stressed, they will often show this in their behaviour (whether that is more externalising challenging behaviour, or more internalising anxiety related behaviour). This doesn't mean our children's behaviour is our fault, but it does mean that it might be up to us to reverse that cycle (with support, if needed). Second, one of our most powerful tools as parents is co-regulation. That is, using our own sense of calm to bring our child back to a more grounded place. This is, to me, one of the most challenging aspects of parenting. Not the tasks of parenting, but our need as adults to deeply understand and look after our own emotions. 

When WE ARE CALMER and have taken some space, we're able to FIND SOLUTIONS we couldn't see before.

How to make things better

Thinking about burnout as a physiological response to stress can help – we are creatures built to survive and if we have been stuck in a survival state for a long time our only solution is to collapse. So, our first step is to recover. Recovery has to involve deep rest. This might be really tuning in to what our body needs but also giving our mind a break, too. Reading things that are soothing, noticing the impact of what we think a ‘normal’ day should look like. For people who haven't experienced this before, it can feel really unusual. 

Know who and what to avoid

When we're in a survival state, we can feel really sensitive to stress – it can feel like our nerves are jangling. We can often second guess this, and we are sadly encouraged to ignore these clear signals our body is giving us that something isn't right. But listening to those signals can tell us what we need to avoid. To start with, it might feel like we are avoiding everything. By listening to our bodies' capabilities and surrendering to a period of rest, we find that we can more quickly regain our resources. 

Let go of previous generations 

The first thing we need to do is identify it. In my book Parenting For Humans, I walk you through the many different influences that we have on our parenting, to help you identify the stories you hold about how to parent, or how children should be. Often these stories are very unconscious and influence us in unexpected ways. Once we bring them to consciousness, we can assess whether we agree with those stories and whether we are holding stories that are in conflict with each other. Then, we can choose what kind of story we want to write – one which accounts for us as whole people, not idealised parents.

What's incredible about being a parent is that we can often assume parents are the ones who teach children. But we can learn so much from our children if we are open to doing so – they give us a window into a different way of experiencing the world. 

To understand your child, first understand yourself

When we identify some of these stories and ideas we have, it becomes much easier to see the child that we actually have in front of us. We let go of our own expectations and ideals and we can see them for who they are. To understand our children, we have to understand ourselves first. If we don't do this, we are parenting parts of us to heal things in ourselves, or responding to feelings that we had as children or that we have now. Once we understand what belongs to us, we can see what belongs to our children. 

Dr Emma’s five steps to staying calm and grounded as parents...



If you are faced with stress, our automatic reaction is to respond with stress – fight, flight, freeze or flop. Find ways to bring yourself out of that automatic stress state and back to a more calm, reflective state. You can do this physiologically, by taking long breaths in and long slow sighs out. You can focus on your feet on the floor and you might also like to use a mantra to tell yourself you are safe.



It can help to think of these moments as our nervous systems communicating with each other. When our child has lost their cool, they are just a little ball of stress. We can use our calm state to bring them back into a safer place. We don't need to say much, or do anything much at all. Just be there, witnessing and grounding yourself, until they come back to a steadier state. There is no right way of doing this. Some children might want a hug, others won’t, so find out what works.



When your child is calmer, it's important to remember this will have taken resources from you, especially if you’re stressed. Take a moment to let yourself settle and acknowledge what a big task this was. 



We often try to reason with or rationalise in the moment, but when our child is in a state of stress, they are not able to consider the impact of their behaviour. Meltdowns are never teachable moments. Later on, you can discuss what happened and think about whether there were any other solutions. Children learn through what they see, so we don't even necessarily need to say much at all, as they learn to regulate themselves through witnessing our regulation.



Of course, there are going to be times we lose our cool, or do things we wish we hadn't. Because we are human and have emotions, we are not perfect parenting robots. So, finding ways to reconnect is crucial, and part of this is really hearing and acknowledging the impact we may have had on our child and apologising for this. Part of repair is also repairing with yourself, so forgiving yourself for the times you act in ways you wish you hadn't, and taking steps to support what you might need too.

Click here to purchase a copy of Emma’s book.

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