Parental burnout can lead to harmful outcomes for parent and child

August 28, 2019

When the daily stress of parenting becomes chronic it can turn into parental burnout, an intense exhaustion that leads parents to feel detached from their children and unsure of their parenting abilities, according to research published in Clinical Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. This type of burnout can have serious consequences for both parent and child, increasing parental neglect, harm, and thoughts about escape.

"In the current cultural context, there is a lot of pressure on parents," says lead researcher Moïra Mikolajczak of UCLouvain. "But being a perfect parent is impossible and attempting to be one can lead to exhaustion. Our research suggests that whatever allows parents to recharge their batteries, to avoid exhaustion, is good for children."

Mikolajczak and coauthors James J. Gross of Stanford University and Isabelle Roskam of UCLouvain became interested in the issue through their clinical encounters with good parents who, as a result of their exhaustion, had become the opposite of what they were trying to be. Although previous research had explored the causes of parental burnout, relatively little was known about its consequences. The researchers decided to directly examine the outcomes associated with parental burnout in two studies that followed parents over time.

In the first study, Mikolajczak and colleagues recruited parents through social networks, schools, pediatricians, and other sources to participate in research on "parental well-being and exhaustion." The parents, mostly French-speaking adults in Belgium, completed three batches of online surveys spaced about 5.5 months apart.

The surveys included a 22-item measure of parental burnout that gauged parents' emotional exhaustion, emotional distancing, and feelings of inefficacy; a six-item measure that gauged their thoughts about escaping their family; a 17-item measure that gauged the degree to which they neglected their childrens' physical, educational and emotional needs; and a 15-item measure that gauged their tendency to engage in verbal, physical, or psychological violence.

Because many of the questions asked about sensitive topics, the researchers also measured participants' tendency to choose the most socially desirable responses when confronted with probing questions.

A total of 2,068 parents participated in the first survey, with 557 still participating at the third survey.

Participants' data revealed a strong association between burnout and the three variables -- escape ideation, parental neglect, and parental violence -- at each of the three time points.

Parental burnout at the first and second survey was associated with later parental neglect, parental violence, and escape ideation. The researchers found that parental burnout and parental neglect had a circular relationship: Parental burnout led to increased parental neglect, which led to increased burnout, and so on. Parental violence appeared to be a clear consequence of burnout.

Importantly, all of these patterns held even when the researchers took participants' tendency toward socially desirable responding into account.

A second online study with mostly English-speaking parents in the UK produced similar findings.

Together, the data suggest that parental burnout is likely the cause of escape ideation, parental neglect, and parental violence.

"We were a bit surprised by the irony of the results," says Mikolajczak. "If you want to do the right thing too much, you can end up doing the wrong thing. Too much pressure on parents can lead them to exhaustion which can have damaging consequences for the parent and for the children."

Additional studies are needed to confirm and extend these findings with broader samples and measures. Nonetheless, the robust pattern of results suggests that there are important lessons to be learned from these findings, the researchers say.

"Parents need to know that self-care is good for the child and that when they feel severely exhausted, they should seek help. Health and child services professionals need to be informed about parental burnout so that they can accurately diagnose it and provide parents with the most appropriate care. And those engaged in policy and public health need to help raise awareness and lift the taboo on parental burnout, which will encourage parents to seek the help they need," Mikolajczak concludes.
-end-
All data have been made publicly available via the Open Science Framework. This article has received the badge for Open Data.

For more information about this study, please contact: Moïra Mikolajczak at moira.mikolajczak@uclouvain.be.

The article abstract is available online at https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2167702619858430

Clinical Psychological Science is APS's newest journal. For a copy of the article "Parental Burnout: What Is It, and What Does It Matter?" and access to other Clinical Psychological Science research findings, please contact Anna Mikulak at 202-293-9300 or amikulak@psychologicalscience.org.

Association for Psychological Science

Related Science Articles from Brightsurf:

75 science societies urge the education department to base Title IX sexual harassment regulations on evidence and science
The American Educational Research Association (AERA) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) today led 75 scientific societies in submitting comments on the US Department of Education's proposed changes to Title IX regulations.

Science/Science Careers' survey ranks top biotech, biopharma, and pharma employers
The Science and Science Careers' 2018 annual Top Employers Survey polled employees in the biotechnology, biopharmaceutical, pharmaceutical, and related industries to determine the 20 best employers in these industries as well as their driving characteristics.

Science in the palm of your hand: How citizen science transforms passive learners
Citizen science projects can engage even children who previously were not interested in science.

Applied science may yield more translational research publications than basic science
While translational research can happen at any stage of the research process, a recent investigation of behavioral and social science research awards granted by the NIH between 2008 and 2014 revealed that applied science yielded a higher volume of translational research publications than basic science, according to a study published May 9, 2018 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Xueying Han from the Science and Technology Policy Institute, USA, and colleagues.

Prominent academics, including Salk's Thomas Albright, call for more science in forensic science
Six scientists who recently served on the National Commission on Forensic Science are calling on the scientific community at large to advocate for increased research and financial support of forensic science as well as the introduction of empirical testing requirements to ensure the validity of outcomes.

World Science Forum 2017 Jordan issues Science for Peace Declaration
On behalf of the coordinating organizations responsible for delivering the World Science Forum Jordan, the concluding Science for Peace Declaration issued at the Dead Sea represents a global call for action to science and society to build a future that promises greater equality, security and opportunity for all, and in which science plays an increasingly prominent role as an enabler of fair and sustainable development.

PETA science group promotes animal-free science at society of toxicology conference
The PETA International Science Consortium Ltd. is presenting two posters on animal-free methods for testing inhalation toxicity at the 56th annual Society of Toxicology (SOT) meeting March 12 to 16, 2017, in Baltimore, Maryland.

Citizen Science in the Digital Age: Rhetoric, Science and Public Engagement
James Wynn's timely investigation highlights scientific studies grounded in publicly gathered data and probes the rhetoric these studies employ.

Science/Science Careers' survey ranks top biotech, pharma, and biopharma employers
The Science and Science Careers' 2016 annual Top Employers Survey polled employees in the biotechnology, biopharmaceutical, pharmaceutical, and related industries to determine the 20 best employers in these industries as well as their driving characteristics.

Three natural science professors win TJ Park Science Fellowship
Professor Jung-Min Kee (Department of Chemistry, UNIST), Professor Kyudong Choi (Department of Mathematical Sciences, UNIST), and Professor Kwanpyo Kim (Department of Physics, UNIST) are the recipients of the Cheong-Am (TJ Park) Science Fellowship of the year 2016.

Read More: Science News and Science Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.