“By running after a model of perfection, parents dig their own graves”

Isabelle Roskam, in Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium, in May 2016.

When Isabelle Roskam opens the SOS Parents emergency line during the first Belgian confinement, she does not expect to receive as many calls: more than 700 in two and a half months. The specialist in parenting, researcher and professor in psychology at the Catholic University of Louvain (Belgium), warns about the suffering of families. Deprived of support, school or nursery, worried parents combine teleworking with the roles of full-time teacher and facilitator, while managing family stewardship. It’s a test, and some fall apart. Thus, the Covid-19 pandemic exacerbates a taboo evil: parental burnout. This exhaustion syndrome specific to parents exists before the crisis, but it would increase slightly in 2020, according to a study underway in 25 countries (in Europe, Asia, America and Oceania), at the initiative of the International Consortium of research on parental burnout (IIPB) co-directed by Isabelle Roskam and Moïra Mikolajczak.

How did you get interested in parental burnout?

The idea was born from an informal discussion with my colleague Moïra Mikolajczak, professor in psychology specializing in stress management and emotions. His personal difficulties as a parent were reminiscent of professional burnout. Was there a parental version of the syndrome? No one was talking about it. However, since the 2010s, I noticed an evolution in my psychological consultations: parents came not for their children, in good shape, but because they themselves felt bad.

In the scientific literature, the notion of parental burnout appeared in the 1980s. In 1983, two researchers applied the concept of burnout to parenthood. Second, studies have remained rare, with several focusing on parents of seriously ill children. We hypothesized that parental burnout was not limited to these extreme cases. During a preliminary study, we received heartbreaking messages from parents thanking us for putting a word on their problems. The concept made sense and everything remained to be done, so in 2015 we decided to start our research on parental burnout.

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How is it different from depression or professional burnout?

Depression affects all spheres of life, while burnout is a stress disorder specific to a context, professional or family. Parental burn-out does not imply ill-being at work, on the contrary: some invest in it to avoid the family. We have transposed the three dimensions of professional burnout to parenthood, according to Maslach’s model: exhaustion, depersonalization and loss of accomplishment. An essential facet stands out: physical and emotional exhaustion. The affected parent has no more energy to take care of his children. On the other hand, we did not find any depersonalization, but, instead, an emotional distancing vis-à-vis the children: the parent coldly exercises his role on automatic pilot. As for the lack of accomplishment, it results in a loss of pleasure in the parental role. The less he sees his children, the better the exhausted parent is. In general, he no longer recognizes himself because, previously, he was very involved.

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