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Parents report excess burnout due to unrealistic expectations

Let’s be honest – the whole idea of a “perfect” parent is absurd. No matter how polished those Instagram snapshots or how organized your neighbor seems, no parent has it all together, all the time. Yet, the constant pressure to achieve some mythical ideal of perfect parenting is taking its toll on families everywhere and causing parental burnout in excess.

A new study from The Ohio State University College of Nursing, summarized in the report “The Power of Positive Parenting: Evidence to Help Parents and Their Children Thrive,” shows how damaging this “perfect” parent obsession can be.

Burnout epidemic impacting parents

“We have high expectations for ourselves as parents; we have high expectations for what our kids should be doing. Then on the flipside, you’re comparing yourself to other people, other families, and there’s a lot of judgment that goes on. And whether it’s intended or not, it’s still there,” says Kate Gawlik, DNP, an associate clinical professor at Ohio State’s College of Nursing, and one of the study’s lead researchers.

The study revealed a truly startling fact: a whopping 57% of the 700 surveyed parents reported feeling burned out. So, what’s behind this overwhelming feeling?

Today’s parents face a barrage of pressures, both from within and from society at large. They struggle to live up to their own ideals about what a “good parent” should be, while simultaneously feeling judged by others. The constant struggle to meet everyone’s expectations – whether about keeping a spotless home, providing the perfect play experiences, or raising high-achieving children – is draining.

In our current society, achievement and success are celebrated (and sometimes even expected) from a very early age. This “culture of achievement” puts pressure on parents to push their kids to excel in all areas. They enroll children in multiple structured activities, hoping to give them every possible advantage.

However, this often backfires, replacing relaxing family time and the freedom of unstructured play with stressful schedules and added pressure for everyone involved.

Impact on kids beyond parent burnout

Sadly, the problems don’t stop with parental burnout. The study reveals worrying trends in children’s mental health.

Parental burnout doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The study found a direct link between burned-out parents and a greater likelihood of their children developing mental health issues. Children of these parents were more likely to experience anxiety, depression, ADHD, and other mental health challenges.

When parents are feeling completely overwhelmed and emotionally exhausted, it’s incredibly difficult to respond to their children’s needs with patience and understanding. Burnout can lead to harsh verbal reactions fueled by anger or criticism.

It can even, in some cases, lead to physical punishment. These negative interactions are deeply harmful, further escalating the child’s mental health struggles and creating a vicious cycle.

Positive parenting: A better way to handle parental burnout

So, what’s a tired, well-meaning parent to do? The Ohio State experts say forget about perfection. Instead, focus on “positive parenting” with a few key strategies:

Connection over chaos

Instead of striving for a picture-perfect home, focus on building strong, loving relationships with your children. This means making time for genuine conversations, active listening, and shared experiences.

Accept that sometimes – maybe even often – the house will be a little messy in favor of those precious moments of connection.

Catch negative thoughts

Parenting is full of doubt: “Am I doing this right?” or “Am I failing as a parent?” It’s easy for such worries to spiral into negative self-talk and unrealistic expectations that set you up for failure.

Develop the habit of recognizing negative thought patterns. Actively challenge them and replace them with kinder, more realistic internal narratives.

Re-adjust priorities

Take an honest inventory of how you and your family spend your time and energy. Are there commitments or obligations that are draining your family’s happiness without bringing true fulfillment in return? Don’t be afraid to give yourself permission to let those things go, freeing up valuable time and emotional space for the things that truly matter.

“‘Positive parenting is when you give your children a lot of love and warmth, but you also provide structure and guidance in their life. You gently teach them consequences of behaviors. So that is a much better goal to shoot for being a positive parent than a perfect parent,'” explains Dr. Bernadette Melnyk, vice president for health promotion and chief wellness officer at Ohio State.

Self-care isn’t selfish

It’s like the old “put your oxygen mask on before assisting others” advice on airplanes. “As parents, we can’t keep pouring from an empty cup. If children see their parents taking good self-care, the chances are they’re going to grow up with that value as well. It has a ripple effect to the children and to the entire family,” notes Dr. Melnyk.

Let’s cut this “perfect parent” myth down to size. You are not failing if you sometimes feel lost or tired. Parenting is hard! What truly matters is being present, loving, and modeling healthy behaviors for your child. “I would much rather have a happy kid than a perfect kid,” says Gawlik.


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