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Impact of the pandemic on parental burnout

The first results of a study carried out by a team of researchers from the Universities of Coimbra (UC) and Porto (UP), as part of an international project integrated in a consortium of 40 countries that investigates parental burnout, indicate that the pandemic crisis and confinement in Portugal did not have the same impact on the quality of parenting and relationships with children for all mothers and fathers.

Of the 488 fathers and mothers who participated in the study (mostly mothers, 81%), through an online questionnaire applied during the confinement period, between April 30 and May 20, 19% of fathers and 31% of mothers stated that housing confinement and social isolation caused an increase in the symptoms of parental burnout, with a negative impact on their behavior towards their children, reporting more negative educational practices, such as spanking and saying things to their children who later regret it, and disconnection.

In the opposite direction, 27% of mothers and 19% of fathers saw this phase as an opportunity to increase the quality of their parenting and the relationship with their children, accompanied by a reduction in burnout related to the exercise of parenting.

«This polarization, with a pole marked by emotional well-being and an increase in the quality of relationships with children, and another pole marked by psychological suffering and a reduction in the quality of relationships with children, associated with a greater risk of violent and negligent, it is associated with a set of factors that can constitute, respectively, as protectors or risks», says Maria Filomena Gaspar.

Being younger, having more years of schooling and living in a big city, as well as living in a house or apartment without outside space where you can play or play with your children or have mental health problems, in the present or in the past, are factors of risk for worsening parental burnout, the study indicates.

Image: ©Paulo Amaral

Parents with more children living at home; with more children under the age of 4, who before confinement were in a nurse, nursery or kindergarten; with more children who require more attention; with more children with more physical, mental, emotional or behavioral health problems are also factors that contribute to the increase in parental burnout.

Parental burnout, explains Maria Filomena Gaspar, «is a mental health condition characterized by a state of exhaustion and a feeling of saturation related to the parental role, with loss of pleasure in being with the children and emotional distance from them, contrasting these feelings and states with those that existed before».

It arises when there is an «imbalance between the “demands” that are placed on the exercise of parental role and the“ resources ”that coexist to deal with them.

The Covid-19 pandemic crisis, with the circumscription to housing, the closure of day care centers, kindergartens and schools, teleworking and social isolation, has posed new challenges to this balance», he stresses.

The objective of this study, which at the University of Coimbra involved the Center for Social Studies, was to understand whether this crisis was constituted only as a space of vulnerability for parenting, with an increased risk of parental burnout, or, on the contrary, also as a space where challenges and adversities were transformed into an opportunity for better quality relationships with children and more positive parenting, with a reduction in parental burnout.

Analyzing the results of the study, the UC specialist considers that «there is an association between the change in burnout and the impact that they say that a pandemic and confinement had on the quality of the relationship with their children: the worsening of burnout is associated with a perception of less positive impact and greater negative impact of the crisis on the quality of the relationship with the child and the quality of parenting; while the reduction in burnout is associated with a perception that the crisis and confinement had a greater positive and less negative impact on the quality of the relationship with the children and the quality of parenting».

«Another result is not surprising: parents with worsening burnout symptoms also mention a perception of an increase in negative behaviors in relation to the child compared to those who experienced the crisis and confinement without worsening or even improving in parental burnout», highlights Maria Filomena Gaspar.

Participants in this study have an average age of 41 years and most of them have a higher level of education (only 11% have up to 12 years of schooling).

This investigation is part of an international study coordinated by researchers from the University of Tilburg, in the Netherlands, within a consortium of 40 countries that investigates parental burnout (IIBP: International Investigation of Parental Burnout) and which is led by the University of Louvain, in Belgium. In Portugal, in addition to the Universities of Coimbra and Porto, the ProChild Collaborative Laboratory also participates.
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