Are you reading this article from bed? Are you hiding there while your children are flinging cereal and milk around your kitchen? You might be experiencing parental burnout.
That’s one of the findings of a recent study published in Frontiers in Psychology. Isabelle Roskam, Marie-Emilie Raes, and Moira Mikolajczak, researchers at Belgium’s Université Catholique de Louvain, asked over 1,700 parents to answer how frequently they agreed with statements like “I feel tired when I get up in the morning and have to face another day with my children” and “I feel emotionally drained by my parenting role.” The researchers estimate the parental burnout rate to be between two and 12 percent of all parents.
This finding has been reported in a number of alarm-raising articles, like this one in New York Magazine that reported the rate of parental burnout in a discussion of how parents are more overburdened than ever.
But such an interpretation of the authors’ results may not be warranted. The researchers’ findings should make most parents feel better – not worse – about their parenting. In fact, the findings might give you license to hide under the covers a little longer.
Take the quiz at the bottom of the page to find out if you are suffering from parental burnout.
What is “parental burnout?”
The Frontiers in Psychology paper is newsworthy not because it identifies a specific parental burnout rate, but because it defines “parental burnout” as a distinct condition. The study opens with the question: “Can parents burn out?” The authors wanted to determine whether or not parental burnout was a phenomenon that could be isolated and defined.
The study’s authors based their work on the already well-documented phenomenon of workplace burnout. That type of burnout is not simply being tired at work or lacking satisfaction in a job. Workplace burnout refers to three specific factors: exhaustion, inefficacy, and depersonalization.
The authors offer the example of a nurse. Up until recently, she has been an exemplary employee. Then a coworker goes on maternity leave, which increases her hours and her workload. She becomes exhausted. She only manages to do the bare minimum required of her. She comes to see her patients as “rooms” instead of “humans.”
Parents, the authors claim, are susceptible to a similar type of burnout. As in the workplace, overburdened parents get exhausted. They go from pinning D-I-Y scented play dough recipes to just making sure the kids get a bath once a week. The study’s authors conclude that parental burnout includes exhaustion and inefficacy.
But what about depersonalization? Although they may joke about their children being demon-spawn or little monsters, parents are unlikely to stop seeing their children as human. The study authors suggest substituting “emotional distancing” for depersonalization in the definition of parental burnout.
The parental burnout inventory
This study cannot be used to generalize the current parental burnout rate either in Belgium, where the research was conducted, or in any other country. Because the study is isolating one point in time, it’s not possible to conclude that parents today are any more or less burned out than parents of other generations.
But what the study did do was provide a tool for identifying parental burnout: a 22-question “Parental Burnout Inventory,” or PBI. The PBI is separated into three sections: personal accomplishment, emotional exhaustion, and emotional distancing. The researchers asked parents to answer how frequently they agreed with each of 22 statements, from zero (never) to six (daily). Then they totaled the answers for each participant’s responses to give a total burnout score.
The researchers identified the burnout cutoff at 88 points, which is what would happen if a parent gave a response of four (“a few times a week”) to each of the PBI statements.
Is that burnout? Or just parenting?
Curious about how the researchers measured parental burnout, I took the PBI, answering each of the questions and totaling my score.
When I started in on the Parental Accomplishment section, I felt reasonably confident about my responses.
“I am easily able to understand what my children feel.” Well yeah. I know that last week, for example, when my son started screaming it was because he put the salt on the counter and I pushed it to the back of the counter and he didn’t want me to push it to the back of the counter, he wanted me to pick him up so that he could push it to the back of the counter.
“I look after my children’s problems very effectively.” I picked him up to solve the salt problem, right? And he fell asleep on me almost immediately afterward, so that’s two problems solved in five minutes.
Do “I feel I have a positive influence on my child”? Yes, often. Am I “easily able to create a relaxed atmosphere?” Well, as relaxed as it can be when the salt’s not put away.
But then there was “I accomplish many worthwhile things as a parent.” I scrawled a four as I noticed my son was still wearing yesterday’s pajamas.
I finished the “Parental Accomplishment” section of the questionnaire feeling, well, less than accomplished.
The “Emotional Exhaustion” section wasn’t reassuring. Do “I feel emotionally drained by my parental role?” Daily. Am I “at the end of my patience at the end of a day with my children?” At least a few times a week. Do I “feel tired when I get up in the morning and have to face another day with my children?” It’s unfathomable to me how any parent could not feel emotional exhaustion at being a parent.
Even though I promised myself I wouldn’t run the numbers mid-quiz, my mental tally seemed on pace to hit that 88-point cutoff for parental burnout. But then came the “Emotional Distancing” questions.
Do I “sometimes feel like taking care of my children on autopilot?” Often. Do I occasionally “not really listen to what my children tell me”? Yes, especially if it’s yet another narration of the Thomas the Tank Engine episode he watched three weeks ago.
But can I “no longer show my children how much I love them”? I tell my son that I love him – and mean it – every day. Am I “less and less involved in the upbringing of my children”? Almost nothing brings me as much joy as watching my son learn something new.
Thanks to low numbers in the emotional distancing section, my score was 66 points, which placed me well below the “high parental burnout” cutoff of 88.
The PBI is an imperfect instrument. The authors do not, for example, provide the specific numerical cutoffs for what they call “low burnout” or “average burnout” categories. But the PBI did help this parent see past a particularly rough week/month and recognize that yes, I’m still doing okay at this parenting thing. Am I emotionally exhausted? Exhausted doesn’t seem a big enough term. Am I feeling accomplished about my parenting lately? Rarely, except for my handling of seasoning-based stressors. But am I burned out? No, because I’m still emotionally attached to my little monster – er, human.
Two out of three ain’t bad
The researchers indicate that, in the case of workplace burnout, exhaustion is the “core dimension of burnout.” Does the same hold true for parental burnout? It seems that exhaustion is the core dimension of parenting, not parenting burnout. In the discussion of their results, the authors suggest that “people can probably ‘bear’ more in the parental context before feeling exhausted than in the professional context.”
Likewise, it appears that a low sense of parental accomplishment is part of the territory for parents who look around their messy living rooms in dismay.
This study cannot confidently conclude that the burnout rate is two percent, or 12 percent, or that burnout even exists. Frontiers in Psychology is a relatively new journal and has battled some controversy over the quality of its research. But even if the article itself raises some red flags, it can help parents reevaluate what they’ve come to think as burnout.
It may be empowering to recognize that your exhaustion, low sense of accomplishment, and even some emotional distancing from your children do not constitute “burnout.” They just constitute “parent.”
Take the Parental Burnout Inventory
Tabulating your score on the Parental Burnout Inventory isn’t as simple as asking BuzzFeed Which Disney Princess Are You? Because some of the statements are phrased negatively and some positively, an answer of “6” on one statement and an answer of “0” on another could be equivalent responses.
You can review the author’s original PBI statements, or you can check out the edited version below to make it easier to find our your own PBI score. All of the questions in the Emotional Exhaustion and Emotional Distancing sections are taken directly from the PBI. The questions in the Parental Accomplishment have been reworded as negatives to match the format of the statements from the other two sections.
Quiz: How burned out of a parent are you?
22 – 44 points You are unnervingly relaxed.
Are you sure you are a parent? If so, please do the world a great service and write the next bestselling guide to stress-free parenting.
45 – 109 points You are experiencing low-to-average parenting burnout.
Others might just call this feeling “parenting.” When you feel like you’re not measuring up to the Pinterest-worthy parent next door, remember that you’re doing just fine.
110 – 154 points You may be experiencing high parenting burnout.
Of course, if you are on the low end of this range, you might just be having a terrible week. If you are on the high end of this range, it means you answered “a few times a week” or “every day” to many or all of the statements in the PBI. In either case, it may help to evaluate your responsibilities and see where you can back off a little bit. Can you take steps to limit your emotional exhaustion? Can you focus on parenting tasks that give you a greater sense of accomplishment? If you’re unsure where to begin, here are 10 ways to take a mental break while also making room for quality time with your kids.