The Heat is On

Are you suffering from parent burnout?

It happens in the work-place and it can happen in your home. It can pounce on you unexpectedly, triggered by something as trivial as an unmade bed, or it can build gradually, eating away your energy, your confidence, your patience, and your tolerance. It can undermine your self-esteem, scar your marriage, disrupt your family, and harm your kids. It's as common as the winter cold but rarely discussed; its sufferers are embarrassed, feeling as if they're weak or have in some vague way failed. Call it parent burnout. It's real and you're at risk.

burnout occurs any time any person is too intensely involved in any activity without relief, without support, and without reward. burnout happens to people of all ages and circumstances who keep all of their eggs in one basket, and then that basket breaks. They feel empty and angry--hopeless, frustrated, and futile. Parents burn out for many reasons, the most common being the nature of the job itself. Raising children is, by definition, a twenty-four-hour-a-day, three-hundred-and-sixty-five-day-a-year, all-consuming, thankless task. Parenting is a skill that can never be mastered and, once begun, it never ends. It may be the most important job you'll ever have but, even if you live long enough, you may never know whether you did it well.

Parenting means pressure. Pressure causes burnout. Sure, raising kids has its rewards. The silent satisfaction you feel, for example, as your toddler quiets in your arms. The smile that breaks through your fatigue as you watch your children sleep. The pride you feel when someone compliments your son or admires your daughter. Even the pat on the back you offer yourself when your teen makes the right choices. But these precious, private moments don't always outweigh the distress caused by those constant skirmishes over what to do and what not to do, where to go and where not to go, how to behave and not behave . . . you know the drill.

And support? What parent hasn't felt alone there on the frontlines doing battle with a defiant six-year-old at bedtime or going head to head with a determined teen over his curfew? Even if you have the good fortune to share the job with an active and supportive coparent, even if these very same battles don't drive a wedge between you and your coparent, real support can seem precious and rare. Far too often parents feel unsupported, and lack of support breeds burnout.

You may be a candidate for parent burnout if one or more of these things are true about you:

* You are or you feel like you are parenting alone. You either don't have a coparent or feel your coparent isn't fulfilling his or her responsibility. Or worse, you feel your coparent is actively undermining your authority with the kids.

* You are low on your own priority list. In an effort to keep the family going, you sometimes miss meals and sleep, forget to bathe, exercise, and otherwise take care of yourself. You believe your needs can wait when, in fact, your children need you refueled and available for them.

* Your child is your life. You and he are best friends to the exclusion of your more appropriate adult relationships and at the cost of your ability to set healthy limits. You have no job, no community ties or other adult connections, or these things are always second after your child's many needs.

* Your child is very assertive, strong-willed and/or defiant (better known these days as "spirited"). In theory you can see how these qualities might get him far one day as an adult, but for now you're tired of the challenges.

* Your child has a serious physical health problem, mental health problem, or learning difference. Advocating for your child's needs can be a full-time job full of frustration and parent-blame, particularly in this climate of managed health care.

* You yourself have a serious physical, emotional, or learning challenge and/or otherwise high stresses elsewhere in your life.

* Very little is secure and predictable in your world. This includes everything from housing to paychecks, from threat of violence to essentials like food, clothing, and medical care. Parents who live with alcoholism and drug abuse, domestic violence, and poverty are at high risk of burnout.


The short-tempered, hopeless parenting fatigue characteristic of burnout typically emerges slowly over time. In its earliest and most common form, you might feel apathetic and restless around your kids. You're distracted, and the quality of your family time together diminishes. In this "pre-burnout" state, you might be accused of having lost your sense of humor and you'll be less able to parent creatively.

This earliest sign of burnout is the feeling that parenting has become a thankless chore filled with nothing but responsibilities. You've lost the joy you once felt or expected to feel. You're still doing the job, but there's no pleasure in it, a state that can leave the kids feeling angry, scared, and confused.

Without remedy, burnout quickly moves into its second stage, a state of near exhaustion and increasing defensiveness. You overreact easily and often. Your temper is short and your patience nonexistent. You feel like your buttons are constantly being pushed. Because you are becoming emotionally less available, the kids' behavior accelerates in search of your emotional presence, positive or negative. If this cycle continues, you might find yourself dreading time together.

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