Single Parent Burnout Symptoms and Powerful Strategies

Reviewed by Dr Lucy Russell DClinPsyc CPsychol AFBPsS
Hayley Vaughan Smith, Person Centred Counsellor and The Ridge Practice and Everlief Child Psychology
Author: Hayley Vaughan-Smith, Person-Centred Counsellor

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.

mum and little boy comforting one a other on a sofa

Single Parent Burnout Symptoms

Single Parent Burnout often has 3 distinct characteristics:

  1. Overwhelming tiredness or exhaustion, physical and mental.
  2. A feeling of emotional distance or detachment from your child/children.
  3. A feeling of inadequacy. Perhaps feeling you are not enough for your child.

Even if you do have support or are co-parenting successfully, it can feel overwhelming and daunting at times.

Single Parental Burnout: Do You Have The Symptoms?

Scientists have researched the specific symptoms of parental burnout and found that emotional exhaustion 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?

  1. Intense mental and physical fatigue
  2. Difficulties with sleep
  3. Feeling easily irritable or angered
  4. Increasing your use of alcohol, smoking or other harmful behaviours
  5. Experiencing feelings of loneliness or helplessness
  6. Feelings of emotional detachment from your children or others’
  7. Lack of motivation
  8. Feelings of inadequacy or low self-worth

If you identify with three or more of these, you may be experiencing single parent burnout.

Let’s take a look at how you can better understand your own situation and circumstances, support yourself, and recognise when seeking support might be helpful.

man head in hands stress burnout

Single Parent Overwhelm and Work-Life Balance

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 childcare, taking children to school and activities and so on.

It’s so hard to get a balance between working and being present as a single parent.

Let’s look at some essentials for improving that balance.

Re-Balancing Your Time as a Single Parent

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.

  1. Plan ahead. Make sure you know what you’re committing to for your week by making a to-do-list.
  2. 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.
  3. Set a time to finish work and stick to it.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Prioritise quality time with your children, not just doing jobs and tasks.
  7. 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. I give you my permission! It’s vital for your wellbeing.
woman sitting outdoors writing in a journal

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).

It’s a similar figure in the USA.

It goes without saying that financial worries can be very stressful for you and your family and can compound other stresses associated with single parenting.

Single parent, low income families are at high risk of financial hardship.

Don’t underestimate the impact this can have on your psychological wellbeing. But know that you are not alone.

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).  

Many 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.

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.

Single Parent Stress: Co-Parenting Issues

Sharing parenting responsibilities with a child’s other parent can bring up all sorts of challenges for you as a single parent.

For example:

  • You might be in the middle of negotiating custody sharing arrangements.
  • Perhaps you have very different or conflicting parenting styles.
  • Maybe you are unable to share child care equally due to work or other commitments.
  • You may 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 might be very difficult for you.

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, of course 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. Give yourself time to work out your boundaries to get the best possible balance, and be sure to be kind to yourself in the process.

Make sure you have each parent’s roles and responsibilities in written form. Then review them regularly to ensure a healthy balance.

You may find our boundaries worksheet helpful.

stressed woman pinching bridge of her nose

Single Parent Exhaustion: The Weight of Responsibility

Single parenthood comes with many challenges (as well as rewards, of course).

Do you….

  • 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?

The responsibility associated with being a single parent is a lot to hold and cope with.

If you do have the support of family or your friends, try to find a way of sharing the weight of responsibility.

For example, decisions, planning, looking after poorly children.

Remember, people love to help so don’t be afraid to ask.

Single Parent Burnout and 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.

If you are struggling, do talk to someone. A friend, relative, or a mental health professional such as a Counsellor or Psychologist.

Try chatting with your doctor or healthcare provider about a referral.

You can also try to help yourself by:

  • Practicing parental self-compassion. In other words, try to treat yourself in the same way you would treat a close friend. Look for the wins, praise yourself for the good results and the things that you have tried.
  • Prioritising a good night’s sleep and reducing stress. Work on slow, 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.
a woman chatting to a friend in a coffee shop

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 okay not to be okay.

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. 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.

1. 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 two feet again.

2. 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.

woman head in hands sitting on floor stress burnout

2. 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.

3. Practice Self-Compassion

Try to let go of blaming yourself and regularly reminding yourself of the great things you do as a parent.

It’s not helpful.

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.

4. 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, or seek out other parents through work?  

Your doctor or your child’s school will often have information about local support groups you could reach out to.

5. Join Support Groups

Whether it’s toddler groups, church or your local town activity centres, parents can talk to each other about the practical and emotional challenges they experience. This can feel so empowering and like a weight has been lifted from your shoulders.

Maybe you can combine it with some physical activity, like a walking group.

6. Seek Professional Help for Single Parent Burnout

Single parents are at a higher risk of burnout. Burnout must be taken seriously, as it can lead to a breakdown or physical health issues.

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 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 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.

Single Parent Burnout: Summary

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.

Helpful Resources for Overwhelmed Single Parents

Please note, many of these resources are UK based but wherever you live there will be similar sources of support available.

Financial Support for Single Parents

Accessing and Accepting Help

Personal Wellbeing for Single Parents

Health For You and Your Children

Related Articles

Self-Care Ideas For Single Parents

Adult and Child Mental Health: Strategies for Supporting Yourself and Your Family

Use This Circle of Control Exercise For Better Mental Health [Free Printable]

The Secrets to Getting Your Child to Listen to You

Psychologist’s Guide to a Happy Family Life [+ Free Happiness Challenge]

Your ABC Anxiety Worksheet For Worries & Anxious Thoughts (Free Printable)

Hayley Vaughan-Smith is a Person-Centred Counsellor accredited by the National Counselling & Psychotherapy 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 worked as a bereavement volunteer with Cruse Bereavement Care for four years.

Hayley is mum to 3 grown up girls, 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.

UK parents, looking for expert parenting advice?

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