Let’s be honest, being a parent isn’t a walk in the park. Whilst parenting can be incredibly rewarding and fulfilling, it can also be tiring, overwhelming, stressful and lonely, especially if you are single parent verging on single parent burnout.
When you’re a busy single parent, the lion’s share of the parenting work will inevitably be on your shoulders. You may feel like you have an endless to-do list and your nervous system is permanently stretched to the max.
It can sometimes feel like a lonely experience and finding valuable alone time might be something that eludes you. Even when parents do the very best that they can, triggers and stressors that fall outside their usual coping skills, can lead to single parent burnout.
Characteristics of Single Parent Burnout
Single Parent Burnout has 3 distinct characteristics:
- Overwhelming tiredness or exhaustion, physical and mental.
- A feeling of emotional distance or detachment from your child/children.
- A feeling of inadequacy. Perhaps feeling you are not enough for your child.
There are of course many reasons why single-parent families exist. Even if you do have support or are co-parenting successfully, it can feel overwhelming and daunting at times.
Why Are You Single Parenting?
- Through choice.
- You have been widowed.
- You’ve separated or divorced from your child’s other parent.
- Your co-parent has abandoned the family.
- You may have experienced domestic violence.
In western cultures, there is often a stigma associated with single burnt out parents, who may feel ashamed, inadequate or perhaps worried that their children will be taken into care.
Sadly, single parents don’t always reach out for practical or emotional help. You may need to make some necessary changes so that you can start to thrive rather than survive. You may need help to do this.
Signs and Symptoms of Parental Burnout
Scientists have researched into the specific symptoms of parental burnout and found that emotional exhaustion and burnout can be common for single parents. If left unattended to or untreated, burnout can lead to other physical and mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety.
Do you identify with any of the following?
- Intense mental and physical fatigue.
- Difficulties with sleep
- Feeling easily irritable or angered
- Increasing your use of alcohol, smoking or other harmful behaviours
- Experiencing feelings of loneliness or helplessness
- Feelings of emotional detachment from your children or others’
- Lack of motivation
- Feelings of inadequacy or low self-worth
Let’s take a look at how you ca.n better understand your own situation and circumstances, support yourself and recognise when seeking support might be helpful.
We all have different ‘hats’ that we wear for different situations. A lot of the time, single working parents are juggling a part-time or full-time job with household chores, daily tasks, going to the grocery store, organising child-care, taki.ng children to school and activities and so on.
How easy is it to find free time to attend to your own needs?
As a busy parent, do you often yourself working harder, trying to meet constant demands both at home and at work? This can lead to workplace burnout. One of the most effective ways of avoiding job burnout or single parent burnout is to address how you achieve your work-life balance.
Work-life balance is important for your health and wellbeing and for your relationships. Burnt-out parents can’t give their children what they need, so it’s time to make some changes for the sake of yourself and your child’s future. Here are some of the most effective ways you might use to gain a good balance and improve your parent-child relationships.
- Plan ahead. Make sure you know what you’re committing to for your week by making a to-do-list.
- Set boundaries for yourself. Don’t keep saying yes to overtime or tasks you aren’t paid for. It’s okay to say no. It’s one of the most important boundaries you can practice.
- Set a time to finish work and stick to it.
- Ask for help. Some flexibility in the way you work in order to meet your family needs can have a positive impact on your relationships and your productivity.
- Schedule some quiet time for yourself, even if it’s only very short. Take some space, breathe and relax. If you are at work, change your environment by taking a break for lunch.
- Prioritise quality time with your children, not just doing jobs and tasks.
- You may not have much time to spare, but try and book something for you into the diary. Watching a movie, seeing a friend, going to a class. If you are able to arrange care for your children on a regular basis, book a regular activity for yourself.
Financial Worries and Single Parent Burnout
In the United Kingdom, approximately one in four children live in single parent families (also known as lone parent families). Financial worries can be very stressful and single parent, low income families are at high risk of financial hardship. This can often impact psychological wellbeing.
Single parent families are still nearly twice as likely to be in food or fuel poverty as those in couple parent families, with 67% of single parents reporting that they struggle with finances (Gingerbread 2015). Some single mothers or fathers have a hard time making ends meet, sacrificing much to ensure their children’s basic needs are met instead.
Financial challenges as a single parent can lead to difficult choices but debt and late payments can damage credit ratings making house rental and ownership difficult. Child allowance, Government credit schemes and loans for students are available to single parent families and you may have a child support agreement with the child’s other parent.
UK Single Parent Welfare Payments: Eligibility Depends on Your Circumstances.
- Universal Credit
- Child Benefit
- Healthy Start vouchers
- NHS Low Income Scheme
- Free school meals
- Council Tax Reduction
- Widowed Parent’s Allowance
- 15-30 hours of free childcare
Take a look at the helpful resources section at the end of this article to access guides for financial rights and planning as a single parent.
Co Parenting Issues
Sharing parenting responsibilities with a child’s other parent can bring up all sorts of challenges. For example:-
- You might be in the middle of negotiating custody sharing arrangements.
- Perhaps you have very different or conflicting parenting styles.
- Be unable to share child care equally due to work or other commitments.
- Have differences about how you want to share the time with the children and where this might be.
- Accepting your ex partner moving on with their life and introducing the children to new partners.
- Experience on-going conflicts in your own relationships which can affect family life.
When circumstances allow both parents to be available, striving to have a good relationship (not only for the children, but for yourselves), will inevitably have mutual benefits. However, this isn’t always desirable, possible or safe. Being a single mum or dad requires adjustment. Understanding and defining your parenting role and how you are able to fulfil this is key. You may find our boundaries worksheet helpful.
The Weight of Responsibility
Single parenthood comes with many challenges.
- Feel you’re not a good enough parent?
- Feel guilty for being a working parent which can limit the time you spend with your children?
- Feel like you are in survival mode most of the time?
- Get cross over little things and lose your temper a lot?
- Feel overwhelmed with the responsibility of balancing everything?
It’s a lot to hold and cope with. If you do have the support of a partner or family, try to find a way of sharing the weight of responsibility in addition to the practical stuff. For example, decisions, planning, looking after poorly children, supporting you if you’re unable to fulfil your parental role for a while.
Mental Health Issues
It goes without saying that it’s important to look after your mental health. But what should you actually do?
If left unchecked, increased levels of stress can sometimes lead to mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and low self-esteem.
- Perhaps you feel the need to be the perfect parent all the time.
- Maybe you worry that you are a bad parent if you can’t attend to your child’s every need.
If you are struggling, it might be helpful to talk to someone, a friend or a mental health professional such as a Counsellor or Psychologist. Try chatting with your doctor about a referral.
You can also try to help yourself by:
- Practicing parental self-compassion. Look for the wins, praise yourself for the good results and the things that you have tried.
- Looking after yourself, prioritise a good night’s sleep and reduce stress. Try some deep breathing and relaxation techniques or meditation. There are lots of apps available that guide you through practices. I use the Calm app on Android.
- Aim to have a positive co-parenting relationship if this is possible.
- Reach out and stay connected to other people.
Essential Strategies to Overcome Single Parent Burnout
If you are experiencing single parent burnout and are lost on what to do, the first step is to acknowledge how you’re feeling, and what is happening for you. It’s OK not to be OK.
As a parent of 3 children, I have experienced many times where I’ve felt totally overwhelmed and helpless, where I’ve questioned my ability to parent well and effectively. I had this enormous responsibility to look after all their needs and somehow fit in looking after my own too. I understood the logic and sense of all the strategies and tools I explored using, but actually doing it in practice, was quite another thing.
One of the first things I had to learn to do was ask for help – once I had accepted that I and the children would benefit from some support, the pressure pedal eased off and I could take small positive steps forward to finding a happy, healthy balance to every-day life.
Here are 6 strategies that might help in overcoming single parent burnout.
Ask for Help
If you are struggling or finding life overwhelming, it’s OK to ask for help. Think of it as needing a guiding hand over a wobbly bridge, you will get to the other side and you’ll feel grounded again. Just use some help to navigate the journey over while you build your confidence to stand on your own 2 feet again.
Understand You Are Not Alone
Parental burnout is common, so don’t be ashamed or guilty, you are human.
People want to help. People like helping others. Perhaps it’s your turn to be supported by others until you’re back on your feet.
Create Some Structure
Routines and structure really come into their own when life gets busy or stressful. Children generally thrive with routines. They know what’s happening and what is expected of them. Planning and structuring your week with visual schedules such as a chalkboard or diary will help you to avoid over commitment which can lead to stress.
Try to let go of blaming yourself and regularly reminding yourself of the great things you do as a parent. This will help you from falling into the trap of perfectionism. Be kind to yourself. How do you like others to treat you? Treat yourself the same way.
Build a Support System and Talk to Other Single Parents
Lots of single parents experience social isolation. We are social animals, but it can be difficult to stay connected with other people when life is centred around the needs of your children.
Do you have a practical and emotional support network in place? It could consist of a co-parent, grandparents, other family members, extended family and friends.
You may not have family or a support system around you. Could you connect with people through your child’s school, share a school-ride rota or seek out other parents through work? Your GP surgery will often have information about local support groups you could reach out to.
Join Support Groups
Whether it’s toddler groups, church or village and town activity centres, parents can talk to each other about the practical and emotional challenges they experience. Maybe you can combine it with some physical activity, like a walking group.
Single parents are at a higher risk of burnout. From not getting enough sleep, to low energy levels through to chronic stress disorders, depression and anxiety, you may need more than some short-term help and support from external sources.
If you are worried about yourself or feel you are withdrawing from your children, struggling to cope and need someone to talk to, visit your doctor to see how they can help. They will be able to help sign-post you to helpful resources. They may suggest a referral to a mental health professional such as a counsellor, grief or trauma therapist, psychologist or family therapist.
Remember, you are not alone, there is a wide range of help available to single parents. If you are worried about going on your own, maybe take a friend or colleague who can advocate for you and share the responsibility of taking in information and helping with next steps.
Your children aren’t looking for you to be the perfect single parent. Good enough isn’t a failure or mediocre. You don’t need to pursue perfection. If you are able to love and nurture your children, reach out for support where and when you can, you will be doing enough.
Please note, many of these resources are UK based but wherever you live there will be similar sources of support available.
- Advicenow https://www.advicenow.org.uk/
- Citizens Advice Bureau https://www.citizensadvice.org.uk/
- National Debt Line https://www.nationaldebtline.org/
Accessing and Accepting Help
- Gingerbread https://www.gingerbread.org.uk/what-we-do/
- Home Start https://www.home-start.org.uk/
- Mental Health Foundation https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/our-work/programmes/families-children-and-young-people/single-parents-projects/single-parents-wellbeing-workshops
- NHS https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/baby/support-and-services/advice-for-single-parents/
- Cruse Bereavement Care https://www.cruse.org.uk/
- Women’s Aid https://www.womensaid.org.uk/
- NHS https://www.england.nhs.uk/supporting-our-nhs-people/health-and-wellbeing-programmes/nhs-health-and-wellbeing-framework/elements-of-health-and-wellbeing/improving-personal-health-and-wellbeing/
- Fearne Cotton – Happy Place https://www.happyplaceofficial.co.uk/
- App – Calm – www.calm.com
- App – Headspace – www.headspace.com
- Psychology Today Article – https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/click-here-happiness/201812/self-care-12-ways-take-better-care-yourself
Health For You and Your Children
- Netmums – budget friendly recipes https://www.netmums.com/recipes/category/budget-friendly-recipes/
Hayley Vaughan Smith is a Person Centred Counsellor accredited by the National Counselling Society. She is the founder and counsellor at The Ridge Practice in Buckinghamshire, and Counsellor at Everlief Child Psychology.
Hayley has a special interest in bereavement counselling and has worked as a bereavement volunteer with Cruse Bereavement Care since 2019. Being a mum to 3 girls is hard work and rewarding in equal measure and gardening and walking in nature is her own personal therapy – Hayley believes being in nature, whatever the weather, is incredibly beneficial for mental health well-being.
Join They Are The Future’s free Facebook group for regular tips and great ideas to support teens and pre-teens with their mental health! Join the group: Parent Tips for Positive Child Mental Health UK.