Artwork for podcast Your Parenting Mojo - Respectful, research-based parenting ideas to help kids thrive
111: Parental Burn Out
26th April 2020 • Your Parenting Mojo - Respectful, research-based parenting ideas to help kids thrive • Jen Lumanlan
00:00:00 01:00:27

Share Episode


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 The Parental Burnout Assessment, available in French and English, can be found here:   If you need tools to help you in the short term, I'm running the Taming Your Triggers workshop. Enrollment will reopen soon. 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. Join the waitlist to be notified when doors reopen.  
[accordion] [accordion-item title="Click here to read the full transcript"] Jen  01:45 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.   Kelly  02:14 Hi. Thanks.   Jen  02:16 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.   Moïra  03:06 Thank you, Jen.   Jen  03:07 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?   Moïra  03:17 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.   Jen  04:20 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?   Moïra  04:29 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.   Jen  05:28 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?   Kelly  05:36 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.   Jen  06:11 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?   Moïra  06:29 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.   Jen  07:46 Oh, really, and I'm guessing that has something to do with social supports there, but we'll probably come back to that.   Moïra  07:52 Yes.   Jen  07:54 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?   Kelly  08:20 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.   Jen  10:16 Probably quite scary too I would think.   Kelly  10:19 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.   Jen  10:52 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.   Moïra  11:47 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?   Jen  12:05 Please do?   Moïra  12:07 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.   Kelly  14:28 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.   Jen  14:49 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.   Moïra  15:12 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.   Kelly  16:40 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?   Moïra  16:59 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?   Kelly  17:24 Two and a half.   Moïra  17:25 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.   Kelly  18:24 Yeah. Thank you. Yeah.   Jen  18:26 Yeah, that...