Preventing Parent Burnout by Encouraging Children to Play Independently

As parents take on new responsibilities for their children's learning, they are at risk for experiencing the same emotional burnout that new teachers often experience. 

Burnout tends to follow a three stage evolution...




Reduced Sense of Accomplishment

First, we feel emotionally exhausted or “used up”.

Then we begin to emotionally distance ourselves from our role. 

Finally, we become disheartened when we fail to live up to our expectations for ourselves.

So what can parents do to prevent feeling burnt out?

It may be helpful to turn to findings from a study in which a researcher interviewed mothers who chose to homeschool their children (Lois, 2006). Of course, their experiences aren’t perfectly comparable to the experiences of families who are quarantined. However, when they first started, they needed to adjust to their role just as we’re doing now.

The parents that were interviewed doubted their ability as a teacher at first. They struggled to blend their identities of parents and teachers. Those who had teaching backgrounds faced new challenges in teaching their own child.

Most of the mothers found experienced homeschool parents to be their best source of information. The most common piece of advice from the seasoned homeschool parents was to “embrace more flexibility in their teaching styles and curricula”.

Too much structure for homeschooling families tends to lead to burnout.

Rather than attempt to recreate a school environment at home, the mothers with homeschooling experience suggested following children’s interests and allowing them to learn through play. Taking a child-directed approach helps to sustain children’s motivation and supports parents’ ability to manage their feelings of emotional burnout.

For some parents, this lack of structure heightened their insecurity.

They said things like...

“I can’t gamble with my son like that.”

Turning to a highly structured routine helped alleviate their anxiety as they transitioned to having their children at home. However, after an initial honeymoon period, children tended to lose motivation. Their lack of motivation impedes their learning leading parents to feel insecure about their abilities as a teacher.

 “I’m too terrified to try that right now.”

Learning from the psychological impacts of 9/11 on parents and children...

We are all experiencing anxiety related to COVID-19 and, given the tremendous amount of uncertainty that has characterized this crisis, any amount of anxiety is justified. How can parents take care of their own mental health while also supporting the emotional well-being of their family? By comparing the psychological impacts of other unexpected, large-scale traumatic events like 9/11, we may be able to shed light on how we can support one another during the COVID-19 pandemic (Chen et al., 2003).

Results from one study found that children reported, on average, between three and four psychological symptoms immediately following 9/11 and dropping to between one and two symptoms five months later.

Parents may be even more vulnerable to psychological distress than their children following the epidemic. Researchers found that caregivers in their 40s and 50s had the highest levels of emotional distress post 9/11 among all groups studied.

After 9/11, 35% of young children had one or more stress symptoms including difficulty concentrating, difficulty sleeping, irritability and nightmares. 47% reported high levels of worry about their own safety and the safety of loved ones.

One of the best ways parents may be able to help their children cope with the psychological effects of the crisis is to take care of their own mental well-being.

After 9/11, children whose parents reported higher levels of stress themselves had children who evidenced more stress indicators suggesting that children are picking up on cues from their parents that are, at times, resulting in increases in children's anxiety and fear. Parents' anxiety is often picked up by children and internalized. Children as young as 12 months can determine another person’s true emotional state even when the person is expressing a different emotional state with their facial expressions, tone, and words.


An important difference between the current situation and that of 9/11 is that schools are closed. Several studies indicate that children received the majority of mental health support after 9/11 at school rather than at home. Children’s school attendance not only provided them access to mental health resources but also gave anxious parents time to take care of themselves. Having the space to manage their own anxiety made it less likely that parents would transmit high levels of anxiety to their children (Hooker & Friedman, 2005).

Independent Play

So, how do we help our children cope with this anxious environment, as well as take care of ourselves? 

Minimizing our own feelings or denying them to our children can cause increased anxiety for us, as well as send the wrong message to our children. If you or your child is feeling anxious it is important to name it, discuss why you are anxious, and talk about ways to help each other cope with that anxiety.

For younger children who may not be able to articulate their feelings as well as older children, play may be a channel through which they can express themselves. Pretend play is considered a safe arena for children to “miniaturize” their real world experiences. In their imagined world, they can experience, express, and regulate negative emotions that they may struggle to manage in real life. Gradually, as they grapple with anxiety, anger, and distress during play, their ability to manage these emotions transfers to their real lives (Singer, 1995).

With schools closed, parents may now have to play an even larger role in supporting their children’s mental health while also attending to their own mental health. Even under normal circumstances, it adds pressure to one's own anxiety to feel the need to manage that of another person. Including longer stretches of unstructured time in a child's routine may not only give them a safe arena to express their own emotions, but it may also give parents much needed space to take care of themselves.

Thinking about how we can prevent conflicts from arising in the first place could help alleviate the stress of trying to figure out how to intervene.

Being cooped up may lead to even more conflicts than usual among siblings. Putting out fires is exhausting and might not necessarily lead to fewer fires in the long run. 

A play plan is a tool that many preschool teachers use at the beginning of the school day. The teacher talks to the child about their plan for the morning with the goal of having them stick to that plan for a predetermined length of time. The teacher helps them to document their plan. Depending on a child’s developmental level, the plan can be a drawing or a sentence. The teacher can support children’s planning skills by asking them open-ended questions.

Spending a few minutes creating a “play plan” together every morning and agreeing to stick to that plan for several hours can help children learn to play independently for longer and foster more complex play narratives. 

The concept of a play plan seems to be contradictory. We usually think of play as being spontaneous yet a plan implies structure. However, play planning is a method that has been shown to combine the benefits of play with an exercise in cognitive and literacy skills (Roskos & Christie, 2011). Having children decide for themselves how to spend their time encourages the development of their self regulatory skills.

By choosing one activity and spending a longer period of time on it, the child has the opportunity to create extended, elaborate play scenarios. This may help them work through their negative emotions. In one study, children who were anxious tended to display fewer anxious play behaviors when given extended blocks of time to play (Barker et al., 2014; Christian et al., 2011). Meanwhile, parents will have spent a few minutes helping children develop their plan but will hopefully have a period of time to themselves while their children are carrying out their plan.