Recognizing the Signs of Parenting Burnout During COVID-19

By Dr. Mary Rooney, Ph.D.

Across the country, most families are now at least two or three weeks into the new normal brought about by COVID-19. If you are like many parents, you may have initially responded to the crisis with not only anxiety and dread, but also a great deal of resolve, vowing to ‘step up to the plate’ and ‘tackle this challenge head on.’

All parents have had to quickly pivot away from their routines and create some semblance of normalcy for themselves and their families. Now, after 15, 18, or 25 days of ‘super-parenting’ without a break (and with no end in sight), many parents are hitting a wall and are starting to show classic signs of burnout.

When we think about burnout, it’s usually within the context of work. We’ve all either experienced burnout ourselves or watched as one of our colleagues suddenly lost motivation and became cynical about their job. But burnout isn’t limited to work – it can actually happen in any area of our lives.

Unfortunately, parenting during the cOVID-19 crisis is a perfect storm to fuel parent burnout. Psychologists who have studied burnout have found that it follows a fairly predictable pattern. The pattern itself has been described in a variety of ways, but the six stages of burnout outlined by Katie Maycock, an anxiety specialist at Thrive Global, captures it particularly well.

When applied to parenting during today’s crisis, the stages look something like this:

Stage 1 of Burnout: Excitement!
While you might not have been excited (not even a little bit) at the start of the cOVID-19 crisis, you may have been feeling energetic and committed to making the best of a very difficult situation. You may have poured a lot of time and energy (often out of necessity) into creating a home situation that would make this time manageable for you and your family.

Stage 2 of Burnout: Let’s Work Harder!
Your initial energy is starting to wane, but you’re committed to making this work. So, you look past the cracks that are starting to show and instead continue to push even harder. Self-care continues to take a back seat, and your eating habits and sleep suffer.

Stage 3 of Burnout: Frustration
Your efforts to push harder aren’t working. You become increasingly tired, forgetful, and frustrated. You struggle to concentrate and keep up with even the most basic tasks on your list. At this stage, you may notice yourself getting increasingly irritated by your children, spouse, or other family members, and you are starting to feel hopeless.

Stage 4 of Burnout: Illness and Denial
You start to feel physically run down and possibly even ill. Your body is sending strong signals that you are headed for burnout, but you deny that anything is wrong and continue to forge ahead.

Stage 5 of Burnout: Lack of Drive and Apathy
The motivation and commitment you felt at the start of the COVID-19 crisis feels like a distant memory. Instead, feelings of apathy and withdrawal take over, sometimes accompanied by feelings of anxiety, guilt, and a lack of confidence in your parenting abilities.

Stage 6: Burnout
At this stage, you are completely exhausted – emotionally, mentally, and physically. You may feel overwhelmed and struggle to enjoy any time with your family, or the simple things that usually make you happy. Symptoms of anxiety and depression are common at this stage.

Parenting burnout will leave you feeling miserable and can take a serious toll on every member of your family. There is no magic bullet for avoiding burnout, but you can recognize the early signs and intervene before things become more severe. Right now, many parents are in the midst of Burnout Stage 2: Let’s Work Harder and Burnout Stage 3: Frustration. If you are in this group, notice the signs and take small steps to change course before burnout gets worse.

If you were experiencing burnout at your job, taking a few days off from work or delegating some tasks to a co-worker would help considerably. Unfortunately, you can’t take any days off from parenting during a crisis, and with social distancing in effect, you’re not able to bring in family members or babysitters to help. So instead, focus on the little things you can do to help reduce your stress level.

If you have a spouse or partner at home, start by having a conversation. Be honest about how you are feeling and see if there are a few tasks they can take off your plate, even just for a few days. Then, carve out time to do some things that have helped you feel recharged in the past. Chat with a friend, spend some alone time outside, take a relaxing bath, listen to your favorite music or podcast while you go for a walk. It might feel impossible to find the time to do these things, but it’s more important than ever to practice self-care right now.

Perhaps most importantly, do everything you can to get enough sleep each night and eat well throughout the day. Sleeping and eating well aren’t easy when you are stressed, so take baby steps to move your eating and sleeping habits in the right direction.

Lastly, if nothing seems to be working or if you are struggling to prioritize self-care, consider talking with a therapist. Most therapists are offering online sessions, and your primary care provider or health insurance company should be able to connect you with a professional who can help.

What this means today is that parents across the country have spent seemingly countless days juggling childcare, supervising e-learning assignments or homeschooling activities, figuring out ways to keep the kids busy while also following social distancing guidelines, and being present for their kids as they work through their feelings of anxiety, frustration, and confusion.

We are managing all of this while not being able to do many of the things we typically rely on to relieve stress – like spending time with family and friends, having kids out of the house at structured activities where we know they are occupied and safe, or even going out on a simple Target run just to get a break from things at home. And, if you are reading this post, then chances are you are also coping with the challenges that come with parenting a child with ADHD under these very difficult circumstances.


Mary Rooney, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco. Dr Rooney is a researcher and clinician specializing in the evaluation and treatment of ADHD and co-occurring behavioral, anxiety, and mood disorders. A strong advocate for those with attention and behavior problems, Dr. Rooney is committed to developing and providing comprehensive, cutting edge treatments tailored to meet the unique needs of each child and adolescent. Dr. Rooney's clinical interventions and research avenues emphasize working closely with parents and teachers to create supportive, structured home and school environments that enable children and adolescents to reach their full potential. In addition, Dr. Rooney serves as a consultant and ADHD expert to Huntington Learning Centers.


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