E veryone has “bad days” — times when everything seems too hard and too exhausting. But some people have a longer, more intense period of negativity, something they might identify as depression. Indeed, when they check their symptoms online or even run them by their doctor, they’ll identify many of the classic signs of a major depressive episode: chronic fatigue, loss of appetite, lack of motivation, anxiety, impaired concentration, lack of pleasure, and hopelessness. And while many people with these symptoms are experiencing a depressive episode, many others have something else: burnout. 


Symptoms of Burnout

“Depression” is a DSM-5 diagnostic term referring to a disorder characterized by low mood that’s accompanied by a number of physical, emotional, and cognitive symptoms like those listed above. “Burnout” is not an official disorder, but rather a syndrome caused by prolonged stress. Burnout produces symptoms similar to those of depression, as well as some unique to the condition. For example, both depression and burnout can produce irritability, pessimism, sadness, feelings of guilt or worthlessness, physical symptoms such as aches and pains, increased illness and digestive problems, panic attacks, and insomnia. But burnout also produces feelings of ineffectiveness, cynicism, and disillusionment.

Whereas depression is centered around despair, loss, and hopelessness, burnout is centered around feelings of exhaustion, failure, and futility. Burnout typically occurs in those who devote every part of themselves to a cause and, somewhere along the way, discover that they cannot actually achieve their goal.


When Burnout Strikes Parents

Parents are particularly vulnerable to burnout. Like others prone to this condition, they tend to be passionate about their “job.” They want to do it perfectly and — women especially — often want to do everything else perfectly at the very same time. Perfect at work, perfect in marriage, perfect with the kids, perfect in the community, perfect in friendship.

Wanting to succeed in every area, a parent may do without food, sleep, relaxation, or recreation. She may work hard to create a great public image for herself and her family. She may give her children opportunities that she can’t afford financially, energetically, or emotionally, in order to help them reach their potential. She will keep going until she literally collapses.

“I feel like such a failure. I scream at the kids all the time. I don’t even care. Nothing helps. They never listen. The principal is always calling. I don’t want to talk to him — or anyone else. I don’t have any energy left. I just hate my life.”

Some parents are especially vulnerable because their task is especially challenging. Single parents, especially those who don’t share parenting responsibilities with another adult, are often called upon to do more than one person can do. Single married parents (those married to absentee, irresponsible, or unwell spouses) often have the burdens of single parenting plus the complications of dealing with a dysfunctional or long-distance partner.

Parents who are caretakers of other family members, those under financial stress, households with two working parents, and parents dealing with their own physical or mental illness will hit their wall more often, and feel the pangs of failure more frequently. And those raising children with physical, emotional, or educational challenges, will inevitably find the already hard task of parenting that much harder. There are endless causes of burnout.

“I’ve had one health issue after another for six months now and I can’t get better. I know it’s because I’m so worn down. I don’t remember the last time I slept more than five hours straight. With six kids, no help, and a full-time job, I feel like my life is one big to-do list. I can’t remember when I last laughed or even smiled. I just bark orders. I’m sure my kids hate me.”


Preventing Burnout

Fortunately, parents can take steps to prevent and overcome burnout. The first one involves accepting defeat right from the start: Give up on being a perfect parent with perfect children in a perfect home. Go for “adequate.” Lower the bar enough so that you can let yourself rest during the day.

Regularly take time off from parenting to tend to yourself and your marriage, and otherwise lead a more balanced life. Exercise occasionally (to release stress), socialize a little, and do something else you enjoy. When you’re tired, find a way to take a break, to relax, and increase sleep: Make recovery a priority. In short, take care of yourself — because a burned-out parent can’t take care of anyone. (Originally featured in Family First, Issue 580)