Parental Burnout: Overcoming the Quest for Perfectionism

Elizabeth Pupillo, M.A., COTA/L / June 2, 2021
Tired mom sitting in the corner while baby plays

Written By: Elizabeth Pupillo, MA, COTA/L

Ok, let’s take a deep breath and check in. Parenting is hard, exhausting work, and at the same time, we are aware of how much we love our kids. Many of us have moments of feeling at our wits end with our kids, but did you know that parental burnout is a scientifically defined and identifiable condition? In a recent article in New Scientist magazine, science writer Jessica Hamzelou interviewed researcher Moira Mikolajczak, who is conducting research into parental burnout at Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium. Mikolajczak describes parental burnout as “an exhaustion disorder in the parenting domain,” and Hamzelou goes on to further qualify the disorder as “a harmful exhaustion leaving [parents] physically unwell and damaging their relationships with their children and partners.” Symptoms of Parental Burnout include:

  • Exhaustion that does not improve with quality deep sleep
  • Emotional distancing from your kids in order to preserve energy for yourself
  • A loss of pleasure and fulfillment in the parenting role

Who is Vulnerable to Parental Burnout?

Parental burnout was first identified in parents of chronically ill and disabled children, but through her research, Mikolajczak has expanded the category to include parents of typically functioning kids who tend towards perfectionism and “put too much pressure on themselves.” This really resonated with me, not only as a therapist, but also as a parent. Although my kids are now grown, I clearly remember the days of getting three kids to three different schools before going to work, picking them up, and taking them to after school activities, then going back to work just to pick them up again, go home, make dinner, manage homework, and get everyone bathed and into bed before 10pm. I felt constantly worried that I was not doing enough for them, not being present enough for them, wondering if I was saying yes to the right activities and no to the wrong activities, and struggling to pay for the things that they may or may not have “needed.” To be honest, I’d never thought of myself as a perfectionist. I really wasn’t aware of it on a fully conscious level. I was aware of feeling judged by other people. I worried about being judged by school staff, other parents, and our pediatrician. I also felt judged by my own parents and other family members. I judged myself on a continual basis, for losing my temper, for shouting, for the house not being clean enough, for not buying healthier food, for ordering pizza instead of cooking. I also noticed somewhere in there that judging myself and worrying about others’ judgments was causing the shouting, increasing tension, and creating a disconnect in my family. Trying to make sure that everyone, including me, thought I was a “perfect” parent was actually making me a miserable parent.

The Detrimental Effects of Seeking Parental Perfectionism

According to Psychology Today, “Perfectionism is driven primarily by internal pressures, such as the desire to avoid failure or harsh judgment.” Many of us are afraid to fail. Parenting is such a huge part of our identities and there seems to be so much at stake. This may be especially true for single parents. It’s easy to feel outnumbered and overwhelmed. Single parents in particular may feel pressure to prove that they are as capable as two parent families at providing stability and opportunities for their children. On top of this, there is even more pressure from the media — especially social media — which engenders harmful comparisons and toxic and insidious games of “one-ups-manship”. This occurs not only between kids, but between parents as well. I think this kind of self-judgment and competition can sneak up on you. You are normally a rational person, but suddenly you’re feeling internalized pressure to have a bigger Sweet 16 than a friend’s daughter, or a more impressive gender reveal video. This comes at a cost, not only financial, but also to your relationship between yourself and your children.

How to Overcome Parental Burnout and Perfectionism

According to Psychology Today’s website,”Letting go of a competitive mindset” can help people accomplish goals without feeling compelled to achieve extreme levels of perfection. They can do this by being present in the moment, observing their progress even when it’s slow or uneven, and using compassionate but honest self-talk while challenging negative self-judgments. “The key is to realize that an endeavor can be worthwhile even if it’s not perfect.” Compassionate self-talk is my favorite, as it lends itself well to a learning approach of “having a growth mindset.” Having a growth mindset means valuing mistakes as opportunities to learn. This blends well with honesty as well as allowing children to see their parents’ mistakes and that their parents are learning from them. Our kids learn much more powerfully from how we behave than through what we tell them to do. Being honest and authentic, demonstrating for your kids that you can think through and learn from your mistakes while being supportive of yourself and them is a better lesson than “if you aren’t going to do it right, then don’t do it at all.” In her book, Growth Mindset, Peyton Curley describes a growth mindset as “the belief that our abilities, talents, and intelligence can grow or change through effort and perseverance.” I really feel that this is the key to both taking pressure off ourselves as parents and simultaneously modeling effort. This also means modeling authenticity and letting our children know about our mistakes as well as how we have gone about learning from them. I would go so far as to suggest connecting with your child through your flaws. Tell them the stories of your mistakes; this way, they learn from your mistakes as well as their own and they know they can come to you for help and support. In this way, you are teaching your children to value and learn from mistakes rather than fear or deny them. You are also extending that same grace to yourself. You may also find yourself feeling less of a compulsion to put pressure on yourself and your kids to do everything and compete with everyone. You can choose to do less and not have to justify that to anyone, including yourself. References: Curley, Peton Growth Mindset Workbook for Kids Rock Ridge Press Emeryville Ca 2020

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