Study finds pressure to be “perfect” leads to unhealthy impacts on both parents and their children

What does it take to help a parent avoid and manage burnout? Experts at Ohio State University came together to design a study on triggers of parental burnout and reported the results of their survey in a report published online. They offer methods and solutions that could help connect struggling parents and outline ways to get essential self-care time, thus making it possible to build support systems that lead to thriving families.

Study: The Power of Positive Parenting: Evidence to Help Parents and Their Children Thrive. Image Credit: fizkes/Shutterstock.com
Study: The Power of Positive Parenting: Evidence to Help Parents and Their Children Thrive. Image Credit: fizkes/Shutterstock.com

What is parental burnout?

Chronic exhaustion and overwhelming stress caused by parenting pressures can reduce the ability to cope with parental responsibilities and function normally. This is called parental burnout. It encompasses physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion, as well as a feeling of not wanting to have close relationships with their children.

The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic brought new pressures into the world of parenting since schools and daycare centers were largely closed, citing public health restrictions. This led to children being at home under the care of their parents, for the most part, throughout the entire day.

The pandemic is no longer a pressing issue, but parental burnout is still common and impactful. The current study is based on a parental survey that yielded truthful and voluntary data on parental stressors, the effects of burnout, and how it can be resolved.

What did the study show?

Nearly 60% of parents said they were suffering burnout, mostly because they were overwhelmed by expectations, both their own and those of others. They felt they were expected to be good parents, play with their children, and maintain a close relationship with their spouses while still keeping their houses in good condition.  

In a finding that should relieve parents of some pressure, free play with parents was found to be associated with better mental health in the children. In contrast, keeping children occupied with more structured activities outside school requirements was linked to mental ill-health. Issues like anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and bipolar disorder were more common in such children.  

Poor mental health in children triggered parents to express themselves negatively, both verbally and physically, such as screaming, insulting, criticizing, or repeatedly spanking the child.

The goal of parenting should be to form “a loving, supportive relationship with their children with structure and limits” since this turns out to produce thriving children and healthy adults. This is also called positive parenting.

Positive parenting

Positive parenting incorporates multiple goals, the most important of which is building a trust-filled and nurturing relationship with one’s children. Communication and listening with respect to the child are essential for this. In addition, setting limits, and praising and rewarding desirable behavioral outcomes, and loving them no matter what. The love, security, and comfort that the child gains from this relationship are key to developing a healthy emotional and relational person as an adult.

A flexible approach to parenting, with warm, responsive attitudes, coupled with clear and reasonable structures to determine time expenditure, responsibilities, and behavior, provides the best outcomes for parents and children. This is often called authoritative parenting.

Practical significance

The survey report thus aimed to provide evidence-based advice on how to achieve this consistently in daily family life. The researchers also introduced a validated, easy-to-use Working Parent Burnout Scale for working parents that could be used during routine clinical visits. It is, however, specially designed for use if either a child or parent has a mental health problem.

The scientists advise that if parental burnout is diagnosed, interventions should be begun, varying with the severity of burnout. This could thus range from taking short breaks to recover mental poise and gain a sense of wellbeing to seeking professional mental health help, as well as informing and using help from family and close friends.

An essential factor in avoiding parental burnout is to embrace imperfection in both parents and children and stay present rather than brooding over past mistakes and wallowing in guilt. Expectations often need to be adjusted so that they challenge without frustrating the parent and the child. Reasonable expectations develop resilience in case of failure, better self-esteem, and the motivation to do better the next time while providing a setting of trust and nurture in which achievement can occur.

Self-care is important to maintain parental health and teach children how to become independent and take care of their own needs as they become adults. Moreover, parents must take breaks not only to rest and recover but also to think about what is going on in their lives at present. This kind of reflection is vital to setting proper goals and devising the right strategies to keep the focus on what is really important for the family without frittering away energy and, time and money on the irrelevant.

The study also provides a list of resources for positive parenting, including advice and guidance on dealing with common behavioral and mood disorders in children and parents.

Journal reference:
Dr. Liji Thomas

Written by

Dr. Liji Thomas

Dr. Liji Thomas is an OB-GYN, who graduated from the Government Medical College, University of Calicut, Kerala, in 2001. Liji practiced as a full-time consultant in obstetrics/gynecology in a private hospital for a few years following her graduation. She has counseled hundreds of patients facing issues from pregnancy-related problems and infertility, and has been in charge of over 2,000 deliveries, striving always to achieve a normal delivery rather than operative.

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