Nobody ever said parenting was easy, but depending on circumstances, some people can find it much harder than others.
In recent years researchers have begun to recognize 'parental burnout' – a condition in which exhausted parents become overwhelmed by their role as primary carers, potentially leading to emotional distance from their children, parental ineffectiveness, neglect, and worse in some cases.
But where does this phenomenon come from? To examine whether cultural factors might contribute to parental burnout, a team led by researchers from UCLouvain in Belgium surveyed over 17,000 parents living in 42 countries (with the data being collected between 2018 and March 2020, in the relatively normal parenting conditions before COVID-19 lockdowns commenced around the world).
In addition to collecting information about sociodemographic characteristics, the participants were asked numerous questions about their family dynamics.
The parents were also assessed for parental burnout by a questionnaire measuring emotional exhaustion, emotional distancing from their children, loss of pleasure in being a parent, and contrasts with their previous parental self (e.g., "I tell myself I'm no longer the parent I used to be.").
The results showed that the prevalence of parental burnout varies greatly from one country to another, but when the researchers compared the burnout rates to a set of independent measures of cultural values and traits across countries, they found an interesting link.
"Individualistic cultures, in particular, displayed a noticeably higher prevalence and mean level of parental burnout," the researchers, led by first author and developmental psychologist Isabelle Roskam, wrote in their study, published in Affective Science in early 2021.
"Indeed, individualism plays a larger role in parental burnout than either economic inequalities across countries, or any other individual and family characteristic examined so far, including the number and age of children and the number of hours spent with them."
Specifically, this trend meant Western or 'Euro-American' countries, which tend to rank high for individualism, also reflected high levels of parental burnout.
In the results, Belgium showed the highest prevalence of burnout at 8.1 percent of parents, followed by the US at 7.9 percent, and Poland at 7.7 percent (which had the overall highest average level of parental burnout).
In contrast, many South American, African, and Asian countries tended to have a low prevalence of parental burnout, which the researchers hypothetically attribute to cultural factors, while acknowledging that the link they've identified requires further study.
As for why this might be occurring, the researchers speculate that it may be due to a transformation in parenting within countries that hold individualistic notions.
"The current results dovetail with sociologists' observation that parenting norms in Euro-American countries … have become increasingly demanding over the last 50 years, resulting in intensification of parental investment, and growing psychological pressure on parents," the researchers suggested.
"What parents feed their children, how they discipline them, where they put them to bed, how they play with them: all of these have become politically and morally charged questions… The distinction between what children need and what might enhance their development has disappeared, and anything less than optimal parenting is framed as perilous."
While it will fall to future research to further examine these questions – and to confirm whether these sorts of pressures are significantly contributing to parental burnout in the countries of concern – the researchers say individualism was the only factor they could find to explain the differences in burnout prevalence.
The team also has some ideas on what might be able to reduce exposure to the pressures behind parental burnout. Put simply: you don't need to do this all by yourself, and nobody's perfect.
'The first would be to revive in our cultures the dimension of sharing and mutual aid among parents within a community," Roskam said.
"And abandon the cult of the perfect parent and gain some perspective on all the parenting advice out there in order to choose what works for you."
The findings are reported in Affective Science.
A version of this article was originally published in April 2021.