How To Know If You Are Experiencing Parental Burnout?

Psychologist Gao-Xian Lin explores emotional intelligence as a solution to the parental burnout problem.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | September 6, 2022

A new study published in Personality and Individual Differences cites emotional intelligence as a possible antidote to parental burnout, a problem growing in magnitude and intensity in this day and age.

I recently spoke to psychologists Gao-Xian Lin, Dorota Szczygiel, and Konrad Piotrowski to understand how parents can go about developing emotional intelligence. Here is a summary of our conversation.

Could you walk us through what parental burnout can look and feel like? How can we distinguish exhaustion caused by parental duties from a full-fledged burnout?

Parenting is a demanding, complex, skills-based activity that can strain parents, leading to parenting stress. In fact, all parents experience more or less stress from fulfilling their parenting responsibilities.

However, parental burnout is not ordinary transient parenting stress. Parents' problems begin when their resources are insufficient to offset the daily stress, which eventually turns chronic.

In such cases, the risk of parental burnout emerges. Parents may experience:

  1. Intense exhaustion in which the mere thought of what to do for or with the children appears to be a mountain
  2. Saturation in which they feel themselves that they no longer want to be a parent
  3. Emotional disconnection from their children
  4. Guilt of not being the parent they were or wanted to be

Most importantly, these feelings last chronically for over three months. Parental burnout reflects not only in parents' feelings but also in their body.

Parents who suffer from burnout may have a dysregulation in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, which may lead to elevated hair cortisol levels over 3 months. In fact, these parents' hair cortisol may be even higher than that of patients with severe chronic panic.

What inspired you to investigate emotional intelligence as a possible solution to the parental burnout problem?

The concept of emotional intelligence encompasses individual differences in how one perceives, processes, and integrates emotional information and, in particular, in how one identifies, expresses, understands, regulates, and uses one's own emotions and the emotions of others.

It is postulated that individuals high in emotional intelligence are able to identify their own emotions and the emotions of others accurately. Besides, these individuals are able to express emotions in a socially acceptable manner, understand the causes and consequences of emotions, use them to enhance their thoughts, actions, and social relationships, and regulate them when they are not appropriate to their goals or situational context.

An increasing number of studies demonstrate that emotional intelligence skills are essential for various aspects of healthy adaptation, ranging from affective functioning to social relations.

Research indicates that emotional intelligence predicts positive outcomes, such as better health and a greater sense of well-being. There is also evidence that emotional intelligence is a protective factor against the adverse effects of stressors.

We also knew from the parental burnout literature that emotional intelligence is an important individual resource for parents to protect them against burnout.

Our previous research also informed us that parents'; emotional intelligence buffers positive associations between parenting perfectionism and burnout and between maladaptive emotion regulation resulting from parental perfectionism and burnout.

Thus, all roads, both theoretical and empirical, have led us to think of emotional intelligence as a parent resource by which it is possible to mitigate the harmful consequences of child-oriented perfectionism.

Why might a parent develop severe child-oriented perfectionism?

We believe that child-oriented perfectionism is a product of today's culture. The global rise of individualism has placed a heavy burden on recent generations, encouraging people to compete with each other.

In response to this socially individualistic climate, more and more people strive for perfection by setting excessively high expectations for themselves, and adopting overly critical self-evaluations, even in the most private aspects of life, such as parenting.

Yet, parenting occurs in a complex relational context involving parents and children. As a result, parents who strive for excellence can expect perfection from themselves and their children. It is the trigger from which child-oriented perfectionism can develop.

What was the methodology of your study? What would you say was your most important finding?

It is a cross-sectional and self-report study. Many drawbacks exist for this kind of study that we cannot establish a causal relationship between child-oriented perfectionism, emotional intelligence, and parental burnout.

We are sure there is indeed a specific association between these factors: parents are more likely to experience parental burnout when they perceive their child is not meeting the standards set by the parent.

However, such a risk is lower (such a relation is weaker) when parents can better identify, express, understand, regulate, and use their own emotions and those of others.

What about emotional intelligence do you think creates this buffer between child-oriented perfectionism and parental burnout?

Our study is the first to investigate the association between child-oriented perfectionism and parental burnout and the role of emotional intelligence in this association. We referred to the global measure of emotional intelligence.

Hence, a specific answer to the question of which aspect of emotional intelligence is central to the relationship between child-oriented perfectionism and parental burnout is impossible at this research stage.

However, we have some predictions about what in emotional intelligence causes the link between child-oriented perfectionism and parental burnout to weaken.

A critical dimension of child-oriented perfectionism, putting parents at risk of burnout, is their perception that their child is not meeting their high standards. Let's consider what happens to the perfectionist parent when they notice a discrepancy between their idea of the ideal child and what the child's actual achievements are.

We can predict those perfectionist parents to attribute the disappointment of their children's failures to their incompetence in the parenting role, leading to lower self-confidence and increased negative emotions.

Thus, we believe that the ability to regulate emotions is key to the relationship between child-oriented perfectionism and parental burnout.

Our reasoning is reinforced by evidence showing that people high in emotional intelligence are more sensitive to emotionally charged stimuli, leading us to believe that they can trigger emotion regulation processes more quickly and effectively.

Future research is needed to investigate in more detail the role of specific aspects of emotional intelligence in linking child-oriented perfectionism and parental burnout.

What practical takeaways would you have for parents who might identify as having high child-oriented perfectionism or at the cusp of burnout? Are there ways they can develop emotional intelligence?

We might think that the best way to prevent the negative consequences of child-oriented perfectionism is to draw parents' attention to it directly and convince parents to stop comparing their own children to an unrealistic image of an ideal child or setting unrealistic expectations for their children.

This may seem obvious, but it is often difficult to change that. This is why we introduced emotional intelligence as a moderator, in the expectation and hope that it can buffer the damage of child-oriented perfectionism.