One in ten parents experienced burnout during lockdown, NZ study finds
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One in ten parents experienced burnout during lockdown, NZ study finds

by Freya Lucas

November 26, 2020

Parenting through a pandemic has piled additional pressures on parents, researchers from the University of Canterbury (UC) have found, as part of a global study conducted in 15 countries to assess levels of parental burnout during COVID-19 lockdowns.


Parental burnout, defined as a combination of chronic stress, exhaustion, feeling like their parenting is not as good as it was, loss of pleasure or fulfilment in parenting, and emotional distancing from their children, affected one in ten parents surveyed for the research, raising concerns about the flow on effect on those children who have returned to ECEC from an extended period of being with a ‘burnt out’ parent. 


“Any levels of parental burnout are concerning, so we need to understand the influences behind these figures and what can be done to support parents who are struggling,” Dr Cara Swit said.


Lockdown itself was not a strong predictor of parental burnout, but the period of lockdown seemed to exacerbate existing challenges for those parents who struggled with missing the break provided by regular childcare arrangements and social activities.


The study results show that 83 per cent of parents said COVID-19 had a positive impact on their parenting, compared to 26 per cent of parents who said COVID-19 had a negative impact.


“Those who had a negative experience were typically already challenged before lockdown,” Dr Swit said. 


Parents who used violent parenting behaviours, parents who had difficulty shifting focus from themselves to their child, parents who were not working or in paid employment, and those parents living in relatively disadvantaged neighbourhoods were at highest risk for parental burnout during the lockdown period, she added. 


In terms of protective behaviours that supported families to weather the storm, researchers identified that the relative independence of children and parents’ ability to regulate their own emotions was important. 


For Christchurch parents there was some benefit of having developed resilience through the tragic events of the earthquakes and the mosque attacks.


“What is great about these findings is that it shows that there are strategies parents can learn to protect them from burnout,” Dr Swit noted. 


“We can teach parents ways to promote independence in their children and to also develop skills and strategies to regulate their thinking and emotions, particularly during times of uncertainty and heightened stress.”


“To prevent parental burnout, parents can address potential stressors before a pandemic hits, or other major changes land. If they are pre-prepared with strategies to manage their own emotions and behaviours and they have helped their children to become more independent, they have already protected themselves from the possible negative effects that can come with chronic stress or burnout during a pandemic,” she added. 


The study signals a shift from focusing on child behaviour to upskilling parents. 


“Often we focus on the behaviour of the child and how this impacts on parental wellbeing. We usually give parents strategies to support the child, but these results suggest that it is beneficial for us to shift the focus onto parents.”


By building the skills of parents, their emotional regulation skills, their skills in seeing the positives in negative situations, protection from burnout can be forged, in turn promoting the wellbeing of the community.


Conducted as part of The International Investigation of Parental Burnout (IIPB), the research was conducted from the end of April 2020 to the beginning of July 2020, corresponding with the COVID-19 lockdown in Aotearoa New Zealand. 


There were 132 participants, of which 87 fully completed the questionnaire. The international results will be available in the coming months.

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