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American parents are "under heightened levels of stress"—and it's worse here than almost anywhere else. But why?

By Melissa Mills
April 06, 2021
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Parents are stressed—but the level of burnout they feel can greatly vary, and a big part of it has to do with where they live.

In a new study by researchers from UCLouvain in Belgium, 17,409 parents (with at least one child living at home) from 42 countries were surveyed between January 2018 and March 2020 to examine their parental satisfaction and exhaustion. All data was collected before COVID-19 lockdowns, so findings are based on pre-pandemic levels of burnout and, with all of the added burdens over the past year, have likely increased.

Researchers asked parents about their sociodemographic characteristics, family dynamics, and also about how burned out they were feeling by measuring emotional exhaustion, emotional distance from their kids, parental duties, the pleasure they found in being a parent, and how they've changed since becoming a parent.

An image of parents with their children.
Credit: Getty Images. Art: Jillian Sellers.

The findings: Parents in Western or "Euro-American" countries tended to have higher levels of burnout, with Belgium leading the pack at 8.1 percent of parents, followed by the U.S. at 7.9 percent, and Poland at 7.7 percent. More South American, African, and Asian parents reported less burnout.

But why are Euro-American—and specifically American—parents feeling it more than others? Our culture, which prioritizes the self and personal achievements over the collective whole, could play a role.

"Individualistic cultures, in particular, displayed a noticeably higher prevalence and mean level of parental burnout," the researchers wrote in their study. "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."

And while that may be true, it's also worth noting that societal expectations set upon U.S. parents—and the mom-shaming and judging that comes along with it—can certainly weigh on caregivers today.

"Whereas parenting is the subject of relatively little social or political discourse in some parts of the world, in Euro-American countries, parenting has become a matter of increasing public interest and normative prescriptions," the researchers write. "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 societal expectations and pressures are real. U.S. parents, and especially moms, are supposed to be involved with their children, but the decisions they make can and will be judged—by other parents, by family members, and by complete strangers on the internet. Sound familiar? Parents go through it day in and day out. It's no longer enough simply to care for and love your kids. Now you've got to do so the "right" way or risk loved ones and social media trolls correcting your every move.

"The expectations towards parents have drastically evolved over the last 50 years, to such an extent that parents who would have been considered as good and attentive parents 50 years ago would now be viewed as neglectful at best," study authors wrote.

So how do we fix it? Giving parents—and one another—more social support could be a step in the right direction. Instead of focusing on someone's "shortcomings" or their different parenting style, it's time to show more empathy, learn from differing experiences, and lift up our neighbors. Burnout is real and we're all feeling it. It's time for a break.

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