When Parents Suffer Work Burnout – Do Their Kids Burnout At School?

Many parents suffer burnout at work. Not just stress, but rather those signs of hitting the wall – feeling exhausted, dispirited, ineffective, and perhaps ready to move on. You know how it can affect you. But how does it affect your kids?

Lately there has been coverage of a study published about a year ago in the European Journal of Developmental Psychology. Researchers in Finland had a group of 9th-grade students (they were, on average, around 15-years-old) complete a questionnaire about school burnout. Their parents were asked to complete a questionnaire about work burnout. The basic finding was that there was a significant association between the two – when parents reported work burnout, kids were more likely to report school burnout. There was some suggestion that daughters were more affected when their mom suffered burnout, and sons responded more to their dad’s burnout. Overall, the link between parent and child burnout was strongest when the families were under economic pressure.

There are limitations to this study that suggest the need for future research on this topic. For example, this study did not track kids and parents over time – so it’s hard to know what’s driving what here. There are other technical details I could get into such as incomplete sampling (there were analyzable data for only 72% of the families). But putting all that aside, this work is certainly consistent with lots of other research which shows how specific types of stress can permeate families.

So what’s the take-home message here? Well, it’s (in part) a speculation – as kids observe our attitudes about work, they may model these in their school performance. Discouragement and negativity and stress can be contagious. So if you are experiencing burnout at work – hey, it happens, especially as economic times are particularly hard and work environments get more and more stressful – it may be worthwhile to consider talking to your kids about it, especially if they are teens. You can share a bit about your frustrations, but also encourage them to not lose steam in their school work. It may be helpful to reassure them that while you may be hitting the wall at work, there have been many other times that this wasn’t the case, and that you are hoping to figure out a solution to this temporary problem. In this way, you can model an adaptive – and honest – stress response, while attempting to buffer them from the (potential) immediate consequences of it. As hard as it may feel, those times when you hit the wall at work may be really important moments in your life when you want to keep an eye on your kids – and help keep their spirits up in their academic life. Sometimes a little bit of realistic optimism can be an important tonic for your kids.

Image depicting work burnout via Shutterstock.com

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