Parents Are Still Struggling With Burnout, Three Years On From Lockdown

It’s hard to believe that a whole three years have passed since the UK first went into lockdown on March 23, 2020.

Since then so much has changed – we’re no longer in lockdown, for starters, and while Covid-19 is still very much a part of our lives, for a lot of people it’s business as usual.

Aside from the remnants of painted footprints on pavements (a reminder of social-distancing) and spotting the occasional mask-wearer on public transport, outside of our homes it’s like nothing really happened.

But from one major stressor we’ve jumped headfirst into the next: a cost of living crisis, while also bearing witness to a war and growing climate crisis, amongst many other things.

It’s no surprise then that mental health experts are still seeing a major fallout from the pandemic on parents and children. And one issue that’s still swirling away under the radar, rarely spoken about, is parental burnout.

What is parental burnout?

Parental burnout is defined as a prolonged response to chronic and overwhelming parental stress.

In October 2021, Action for Children research showed 82% of UK parents had demonstrated at least one of the warning signs of parental burnout as a result of the pandemic.

Parents of preschool age children, and women in particular, were most impacted.

At the time, one mum told the charity: “I feel like I’m crumbling under the pressure and I’ve lost count how many times I’ve cried over the past weeks. I don’t know what to do and I hate myself but I feel like just walking out of the door and not coming back.”

What are the signs of parental burnout?

Dr Emma Svanberg, author of Parenting For Humans, tells HuffPost UK there are overlaps between burnout and parental burnout as they share that same sense of overwhelm and exhaustion.

But there are also some more specific signs of parental burnout to watch out for, such as:

  • Exhaustion in your parental role. “It’s that kind of tiredness where it doesn’t really matter how much you sleep, you still wake up in the morning feeling really bone-tired,” says Dr Svanberg.

  • Noticing your parenting has changed and is different to how you would normally parent. 

  • Feeling fed up with your parental role. “You feel that you’re not very good at your ‘job’ – so you feel like you’re not being the parent that you want to be anymore,” adds the psychologist.

  • Emotional distancing from your children.

“One of the main ways that it’s different to work burnout is that what we tend to do when we’re burnt out from work is we withdraw from our work – and what tends to happen is that will lead to us having a break. So we’ll get signed off, or take a sabbatical or take a holiday,” says Dr Svanberg. “Usually there are ways we can gain our energy and motivation.”

But with parenting, what’s really complicated is that we emotionally withdraw from our kids because we can’t physically withdraw from them.

How does this impact our relationship with our kids?

If you’re burnt out, you might become frenetic and feel like you literally cannot stop, you might also become irritable and snap or shout at them.

This is then compounded by our children seeking closeness to us, because they notice something isn’t right.

“If our child has a little ‘spidey sense’ that we’re not quite OK, that we’re withdrawing, that there’s something going on that’s making them feel a little bit prickly, what they’ll then do is they’ll seek proximity to us,” explains Dr Svanberg.

This initiates a whole vicious cycle whereby a parent withdraws to regain their resources, but in doing that, their child might then become clingier, needier and more demanding. “And that can very quickly cause conflict in that parent-child relationship,” she adds.

On top of this, children might then feel responsible for the things that are happening around them. “A four-year-old can’t think: mum looks really tired and burnt out so she’s taking a break from me ... a four-year-old is going to think: I’ve done something wrong and that’s why mum’s withdrawing,” says Dr Svanberg.

This can lead to quite a fraught and stressful relationship – not to mention a huge amount of guilt and shame for parents. “The parent will continue to feel overwhelmed and the child will – we would hope – continue to ask for safety, security, closeness. Or make themselves withdraw or act out in challenging behaviour because they’re not happy about what’s going on,” she adds.

The pandemic created the perfect conditions for parental burnout to thrive – and we haven’t given ourselves chance to recover

This situation was exacerbated massively in lockdown when physical withdrawal was completely off the cards. Parents were in a constant state of stress – often juggling home-schooling, work and trying to survive a pandemic, with little to no support – and there was simply no means of escape.

While things are better now (because we can actually leave our homes, for a start), lots of people are still very much dealing with the mental fallout of lockdown on top of new stresses, suggests the psychologist.

“There’s still a lot of stress around systemically. So even though we’re out of Covid, to an extent, we’re still dealing with the ripples of the lockdowns, the impact on public services, lots of people are feeling not supported by government or public services,” she says.

“Lots of people are facing financial struggles, work struggles, schools and nurseries and childcare settings are also having trouble – all of these things will have an impact on our sense of safety.

“We are still in burnout when we’re in a chronic state of stress. Most parents are still in a chronic state of stress – that has not gone away. If anything that’s just been added to.”

On top of that we’re now really seeing the mental health impact of Covid-19 on a generation of children. Data from the Nuffield Trust and Health Foundation found the impact of Covid-19 has led to an unprecedented increase in demand for mental health services for children and young people in England – particularly related to eating disorders.

For parents navigating this – while also contending with huge waiting times for mental health services – it is incredibly challenging.

“Nobody is saying: let’s recover from everything we’ve been through,” notes Dr Svanberg. “The general cultural narrative is: everything’s fine, let’s crack on, it’s totally normal.

“When we invalidate people’s lived experience in that way, what tends to happen is people internalise it and blame themselves. I speak to a lot of parents who say: ‘I don’t feel OK, I’m exhausted, I don’t feel like I’m relating to my child in a way that I want to, but everything’s fine and I don’t understand why I’m feeling this way’.”

But when you unpack these parents’ stories, you often find that they gave birth alone in the pandemic, had barely any social support from family and the wider community, had very little public service support, and are now facing expensive childcare, as well as the high cost of living and stagnant wages.

“So with all of those things together, of course there’s going to be a mental impact,” the psychologist adds. But because it’s not something we’re talking about, people tend to see it as being their personal responsibility or their fault, she suggests.

We are still in burnout when we’re in a chronic state of stress. Most parents are still in a chronic state of stress – that has not gone away. If anything that’s just been added to.

The UK’s parenting culture has a burnout problem

In global studies, burnout is much more prevalent in countries like the UK and the US, where there is a greater narrative that, as parents, we should be able to cope on our own.

But in areas where raising children is seen as something that is done as a community, parental burnout levels are lower – likely not a coincidence.

The psychologist notes in the UK there is a lack of practical and emotional support for parents, as well as “very few places” for parents to come together and talk about the stresses and joys of parenting.

The government has finally started to address this with the roll out of Family Hubs in areas around England to help support parents, which will see 75 local authorities given funding until March 2025 to provide more support to families. But is it enough?

Financial insecurity, lack of support and social isolation have all been found to be risk factors for parental burnout. Single parents, parents of SEND children, and immigrant parents are also more at risk because of the extra pressures they face.

Dr Svanberg has been working with parents for over 20 years now and says anecdotally the pressure and expectation on them is much greater now than it was when she first started out.

Specifically there is a pressure to be the perfect parent. “We spend a lot more time with our children and when we spend that time with our children we expect it to be really high quality time,” she explains.

“That can create pressure both on parents and our children – there is a sense that we always need to be doing something with our children. And I think in doing that, we not only raise the pressure on ourselves, but we also lose sight of what is important, which is the building of a relationship.”

How can you make steps to tackle parental burnout? 

While it might seem inescapable, there are things we can be doing to tackle parental burnout.

The clinical psychologist acknowledges that often “help is really hard to access”. But if you are experiencing burnout and it feels like it’s been going on for some time (and it’s not something you can resolve on your own), she still recommends reaching out to your GP, midwife or health visitor about it. If you can afford to pay privately for therapy, that can also help.

There are also steps you can take yourself to tackle the issue – and the biggest one is to seek support from friends, family members and neighbours to “bring in a village”.

It can often be really tricky to admit you’re struggling, but there is no shame in asking for help. Raising a child – or multiple children – is hard. We need to get over our own feelings of shame about needing to do that.

“We can create villages together but it does take us getting over that initial hurdle of feeling OK about doing that, about parenting more communally,” says the psychologist.

If you’ve noticed your burnout is causing friction with your child, it’s important to take a step back and not look for solutions on how to fix your relationship with them, or fix their challenging behaviour – because you’ll still be burnt out afterwards. Instead, the psychologist recommends taking that first step of asking yourself: how do I just be in this problem that I’m in? And how do I tune into how I’m feeling about it?

Again, this can be difficult. “It’s not acknowledged enough that stopping can be frightening – and we also live in a society that really values us being in that chronically stressed state,” she says. “So rest, pause, can feel really alien to us and a little bit scary.”

But rest is what you need – and somehow you need to carve time and space to get it. Because if there’s one thing we all know, it’s that burnout is not sustainable – and at some point, everything will come crashing down.

“Restoration and rest are things we really don’t know how to do anymore,” says Dr Svanberg. “Rest has to involve really deep rest of the mind and body. That is not watching TV or even lying in bed and scrolling on your phone. It might be laying in the dark with some really gentle music on or in silence.”

Deep rest might also look like a hot bath with the lights off, lying in a dark room, or going for a nice massage if that’s something you can afford. It might also look like turning off your phone, reducing your caffeine intake and making sure you’re eating well.

It can also be helpful to lighten your load – easier said than done, we know. If you’ve got a to-do list as long as your arm (and leg, - heck, your entire body), it’s time to offload jobs onto your partner or children and only prioritise jobs that are essential. Everything else can wait.

“In order to quickly recover from chronic stress we need to think about the things that stress our whole nervous system,” Dr Svanberg adds, “so not just the psychological stresses, but also the physiological stresses.”

When we’re stressed, our body is full of adrenaline and cortisol. So we need to basically reset the nervous system, she suggests. According to Healthlinebreathing exercises, weighted blankets, hot baths, warm hugs, eating healthy fats (think avocado and nuts), lifting weights and taking a break (when possible) can all help with this.

You can find more advice on dealing with parental burnout here.