Parental exhaustion is universal. Stress-related suffering in parenting has received increased attention in recent years. Are parents in certain countries more affected by the phenomenon? Yes, and it’s those in the most individualistic Western countries. Belgium is in the top three. So conclude the researchers Isabelle Roskam and Moïra Mikolajczak, who coordinated a global study that shows a country’s culture plays a major role in parental burnout.
High stress levels in the family can lead to parental exhaustion and serious consequences for both parents and children, no matter where the family lives. Profs Roskam and Mikolajczak, researchers at the Psychological Sciences Research Institute (IPSY), have been studying the phenomenon for several years. They led an international study by hundreds of researchers from 42 countries to examine the prevalence of parental burnout. The results, published in Affective Science, are surprising. ‘The prevalence varies greatly from one culture and country to another,’ explains Prof. Roskam. ‘We could have hypothesised that it would be the same everywhere but that the reasons why people burn out would be different.’ This is not the case.
You’re on your own
Rich, individualistic Western countries, where families are typically smaller than those in other countries, are most affected. According to the researchers, culture plays a crucial role in parental burnout, more so than the socio-economic and socio-demographic factors analysed in the study. The results clearly show that the individualism that characterises Western countries can subject parents to higher levels of stress. Why is this so? Prof. Roskam offers some clues. ‘Our individualistic countries cultivate a cult of performance and perfectionism. What’s more, parenthood is a very solitary activity in these countries, unlike in Africa, for example, where the entire village is involved in raising its children.’ Poorer regions, in which families often have many children, are indeed more collectivist. This dimension seems to protect parents from exhaustion. The sense of community is sorely lacking in our Western societies, even more so in this period of health crisis. Families find themselves isolated and cut off from their social relations. For Prof. Roskam, another reason, related to conflicting demands, could explain the link between parental burnout and individualism. ‘In our societies, you’re advised to listen to your needs. When you become a parent, in order to fulfil your role properly, you’re asked to hear your children’s needs first. This makes you feel guilty when you take time for yourself. But it's essential to take care of yourself.’
The good parent
What measures could prevent stress in parenting? ‘The first would be to revive in our cultures the dimension of sharing and mutual help among parents within a large community. Being a parent is a complex job and you can share your responsibilities with other adults or caregivers. It’s also important to get out of the cult of the perfect parent, to allow yourself the possibility of making mistakes. We have to bring back the notion of the good parent – that is, good enough!’ Preventing parental burnout in our societies is crucial because it can have dramatic psychological consequences for parents and children. ‘Our studies have shown a very significant increase in the risk of neglect and violence against children. They’re the source of the stress and parents protect themselves from it by distancing themselves.’ This emotional detachment leads to deficiencies in parenting and health. Some parents no longer have the resources to help children with homework or take them to the doctor. Another danger is verbal and physical violence in times of great irritability. ‘In consultation, we measure how much children realise their parents are suffering and that they have something to do with it. They feel guilty.’.
The study provides a basis for a whole range of intercultural research. Prof. Mikolajczak explains, ‘The collective dynamic of the consortium we led was essential. We worked closely with experts from all the cultures involved, who were the only ones capable of adapting the tools and methods to collect data in their countries, guaranteeing their validity and interpreting them correctly. We were more effective working together than on our own.’ Until now, studies on parental burnout focused on personal factors: Are you a perfectionist parent? How do you manage your emotions? Do you have help at home? ‘As in the case of professional burnout, we first think about the individual variables, but we also know that many other business-related elements come into play. Parents who burn out exercise their parenting in a particular cultural context. This must be taken into account when treating symptoms.’ The knowledge generated by the study makes it possible to gain perspective on the culture in which one lives. Prof. Roskam comments, ‘It's guilt-relieving. It's saying: Ok, it's not just about me. I live in an environment where there’s a lot of advice on what parents should and shouldn’t do. In itself, the advice is good.’ But the question to ask oneself is: How can I make such advice work for my situation? ‘That's how to be that “good enough” parent, instead of the perfect parent. This is an important step in reducing the pressure you put on yourself.’