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Parental Burnout in Neurodivergent Parents

This week is Maternal Mental Health Awareness Week! From the 29th April to 5th May, EMH will be showcasing some of the work being undertaken by our members into maternal/parental mental health and wellbeing. To kick off MMHAW this year, Jasmin Wertz, Lydia Auffermann and Emmett Christie share findings from their recent study which identified contributors to burnout in neurodivergent parents. As their blog post highlights, although burnout is not an official mental health diagnosis, it is associated with depression, anxiety and a higher risk of suicide, and is therefore a topic that deserves much greater attention.


Being a parent is often portrayed as rewarding and joyful, but it can also be challenging and stressful. Dealing with sleepless nights, tantrums, and busy schedules can leave parents feeling drained, overwhelmed, and disconnected. For some parents, these feelings can take the form of parental burnout. While the term 'burnout' is typically associated with pressures in the workplace, previous research shows that it can also be applied to the relentless demands of raising children. It is important to take parental burnout seriously, because it can negatively affect parents' mental health and undermine parents’ ability to connect with their children.


In a recent study, we explored parental burnout in neurodivergent parents, specifically, in autistic parents and parents with ADHD. There has been very little research on the lives and experiences of neurodivergent parents, but the few studies that are available suggest that they may constitute a high-risk group for experiencing parental burnout. For example, in previous surveys, neurodivergent parents report greater difficulties with the multi-tasking demands of parenthood and more distress associated with parenting. Neurodivergent adults are also exposed to more of the risk factors for parental burnout, such as lower access to support, and greater social isolation and stigma.


Building on this work, we conducted a survey with 145 parents who had been diagnosed or self-identified as autistic or as having ADHD. We asked these parents whether they had experienced signs of parental burnout, including exhaustion (e.g. "I often feel completely run down by my role as a parent") and emotional distancing from their children (e.g. “I tend to do what I'm supposed to do for my child(ren), but nothing more”). We also measured factors that may contribute to differences in burnout among neurodivergent parents. This included parents’ perception of social support (or lack thereof), such as from their social network and from the healthcare system. In addition, we measured parents’ sensory sensitivity, because many neurodivergent people report heightened sensitivity to sensory stimuli such as noises, touch and smells, and this may contribute to feelings of stress and overwhelm in parents (for example, when dealing with a child’s noisy temper tantrum).


The study revealed three key findings. First, experiences of parental burnout were quite common among the parents in the sample, as indicated by high levels of emotional exhaustion, on average. Levels of emotional distancing were not as high, suggesting that many parents were able to maintain a close emotional connection with their children despite their exhaustion. The findings support the concern that neurodivergent parents may be at disproportionate risk for experiencing parental burnout, particularly parental exhaustion.


Second, sensory sensitivity and experiences of support were both linked with burnout, in opposite directions. That is, both for autistic parents and for parents with ADHD, greater sensitivity to sensory stimuli predicted greater emotional exhaustion (but not necessarily greater emotional distance from the child). On the other hand, if parents indicated that they had good support systems in place (e.g. “I have a strong support network to help me with parenting”) and had good experiences with healthcare professionals (“My interactions with the healthcare system have been overall positive”) this was linked with experiencing less burnout. The findings highlight the importance of building good support systems for neurodivergent parents, which has the potential to reduce experiences of burnout and its adverse consequences.


Third, these findings remained when we considered other factors that may be important for experiences of parental burnout among neurodivergent parents. One particularly interesting variable was whether parents had been formally diagnosed or self-identified as autistic or as having ADHD. Given that waitlists to receive a formal evaluation of ADHD or autism can be very long, this suggests that supports should be made available even to parents who have not (yet) received a formal diagnosis.


Overall, our findings highlight the importance of strong support systems for reducing parental exhaustion among neurodivergent parents. Here in Scotland, some organisations offer supportive spaces, e.g. for autistic parents specifically, or for autistic adults or adults with ADHD more broadly. Furthermore, the findings highlight the need for a better understanding of neurodivergent parents’ experiences. We are currently planning more research on this topic and welcome the input of neurodivergent parents who may be interested in contributing to this work.


Jasmin Wertz is a Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Edinburgh. She studies parent-child relationships, including predictors of the quality of parent-child relationships (such as parent and child characteristics, genetic influences and family context) and the impact of parent-child relationships on offspring development across the life-course. The overarching goal of her work is to produce evidence that can inform policies to better support families.

Lydia Auffermann is a fourth-year Psychology student at the University of Edinburgh.  With a special interest in clinical and social psychology, she has worked on research projects ranging from the psychological effects of incarceration, to the unique experiences of neurodivergent people, especially parents. She hopes to go on to do post graduate studies in clinical psychology to work towards becoming a therapist or clinical psychologist.  


Emmett Christie is a fourth-year Psychology student at the University of Edinburgh. He has worked on a diverse range of projects, from investigating predictors of mental health outcomes in adolescents to studying infant language learning and exploring public perceptions of psychological research results. With a broad interest in the field, Emmett is particularly focused on advancing his expertise in clinical psychology and is planning to pursue postgraduate studies in this area.


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