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Burnout in children and adolescents

Burnout in children and adolescents
Burnout in children and adolescents | ©: shootingankauf - Fotolia

So far, the so-called burnout was seen exclusively in adults. And there especially in people who are self-employed or those in senior positions. But burnout in children and adolescents is that even possible? How does this manifest and what can concerned parents do?

First, the definition of the term "burnout": It refers to an acute emotional exhaustion due to permanent or temporary excessive demand on the child. Burnout manifests itself in reduced productivity and may lead to total exhaustion, apathy and some other psychosomatic disorders. At this stage, there is also an increased risk for any kind of dependency disorders. The treatment can be tedious and can only be promising if the causes are identified and replaced by new habits and behaviours.

It is important to know that within the field of science, this burnout syndrome is not a separate, recognized disease. It is considered to be a problem with your skills and how you tackle your life. Therefore, not all health insurances will cover the treatment.

Causes of burnout in children & adolescents

Is this really burnout what we see in children and adolescents? Experts have to deal with this question quite frequently. First of all: Nowadays the term "burnout" is used in an almost exaggerated way and stands for a whole range of different physical and mental-emotional imbalances, even in children and adolescents. Not each of these imbalances in itself calls for a burnout, but more of them may well add up to a symptom.

However, before we deal more closely with those symptoms, first we should clarify, where and what the causes of burnout in children and adolescents are. Basically, reasons of any burnout are an imbalance between requirements and personal resources. The same goes for children and adolescents. This imbalance has various causes among young people. The most important are:

1. Excessive demand at school

For the last year the performance pressure at schools continuously increases. Even first-graders feel this pressure. Depression in such young children is not unknown anymore. Therefore, their academic achievements drop even further, which sets a downward spiral in motion which inevitably ends in burnout. The school system in Germany plays a decisive role in this issue. Over decades, this system was not fundamentally revised and adapted to the changes in today’s society. The increased requirements of many careers are only addressed by an earlier and earlier selection, which in turn only increases the pressure.

Burnout in children and adolescents
Burnout in children and adolescents | ©: jogyx - Fotolia

For many years now, enough funding are not available any longer. This means many children are forced to qualify for further education already while still in primary school. This leads to increased stress because secretly everyone knows: Without formal education or graduation from a higher school you have no access to the “better” jobs. It is no longer surprising, that in most primary schools, starting as early as grade two or three, children have to learn a second language. This is joyfully welcomed by many parents. What many do not seem to see is, that their children end up overwhelmed. The more subjects, the more pressure to perform accordingly.

2. Uncertain or respectively negative future prospects

For years now we are going through a social turmoil. Because of all those changes there are no clear cut prospects for the future anymore, as was the case just a generation ago. This is especially true in the professional arena. Grandpa stayed with the same company, where he once started as an apprentice, for 45 years until retirement. At this time and age, that is hardly imaginable anymore. The world is changing faster and faster. Society lacks necessary constants, which would provide, particularly for young people a safe and positive outlook into their future.

And so frustration is taking a hold. Unemployment often threatens already straight after leaving school; indeed, a bleak prospect of a probably just as miserable life. This is especially true for students in secondary schools, but also increasingly for higher school graduations as we speak.

3. Incorrect behaviour of the parents

Parents often cannot deal with the signs of burnout in their children. They suspect an act of defiance and, therefore, try with increasingly tougher methods to get on top of this situation. However, little do they know that they only make matters worse. On the other hand, today’s families are not talking enough to each other and, in particular, problems are swept under the carpet. Therefore, the child has no chance to express himself, make his parents aware of his mental imbalance and is left to his own devices. (Besides that, in this age the child has not yet developed a language to articulate his “emotional imbalance”).

4. Incorrect behaviour of teachers and other educators

As parents and other educators, teacher interpret the symptoms of burnout in children and adolescents often only incorrectly. This is also because most children who are at risk of developing depressive symptoms and burnout are also those children who are “over-adjusted”. Those children do not stand up for themselves and teachers often see them as the “good kids” and overlook the underlying problem.

Which young people are particularly at risk to suffer from burnout?

With the term 'burnout in children ", one thing inevitably springs to mind: ambition and stringent will driven parents with the aim to create child prodigies through continuously new tasks and discipline. Those parents do not realize that they constantly overwhelm their children. Slowly, those children drift into a state of burnout. Eventually, the child won’t feel up to it anymore. He will experience alternating states of depression and aggression as well as and clearly perceptible physical symptoms.

learning disabilities and burnout
learning disabilities and burnout | ©: pegbes - Fotolia

But in reality it is quite different. Those children described in the previous paragraph are rarely those suffering from burnout. Simply because sooner or later those children and young people will rebel against their parents’ “dictatorship” which eventually will resolve in a defiance behaviour.

Those children and youth who suffer from burnout are usually those who ask and expect way too much of themselves. – Without any pressure from the outside. Those are children who are willing to deliver high performance and do in general a lot for school. The expectations on themselves are so high that they are unable to fulfil them. The majority of these children come from well-off parents and generally they are enrolled in higher schools.

Signs of burnout in children & adolescents

Parents should always be vigilant to detect the signs of a pending exhaustion as early as possible. These symptoms can come various ways. The most important ones we have put together here:

Constant fatigue

If the child is constantly tired, you hardly can get him out of his bed in the morning and is likely to fall asleep at school. This could be signs of chronic tiredness, respectively the child is burned out.

Weight loss or gain

In many cases, the pending burnout goes hand in hand with weight loss. In only a few instances weight gain was observed. Whatever the case, whenever your child shows sudden changes in his weight without actually changing his eating habits within a short time, you should pay attention and explore the reason.


Whenever a child or teenager engages in a self-harming behaviour, it is a cry for help. Often this is an aggression against himself because no longer is he able to meet the demands he or others have put on him.


Similar to self-harm, bedwetting may be a cry for help. The child loses control of an important bodily function because the constant and excessive control in all other areas of his life can no longer be endured. Bedwetting can be understood as a rebellion of the soul against the demand of fitting into a mould.

Dropping of academic achievements

If your child was doing well in school but all of a sudden his achievements drop within a very short period this can be a first indicator for excessive demand, which eventually could lead to burn out.


The same as with the declining achievements applies if your child all of a sudden isolates himself from his friends or even entirely from the outside world. The self-imposed isolation can be a wake-up call of the mind to bring more peace and balance into his life.

What parents and educators can do at the first sign of burnout in your child

Since the signs of burnout are easily confused with other symptoms, parents should be especially vigilant. But what do you do when the first signs are already evident? First of all, it is important to remain calm. Panic does not help and neither will accusations and laying blame. Find a quiet moment and talk to your child. Respond to his statements with understanding and provide emotional resonance.

In such cases, it is important to talk to the child’s teachers and if possible involve them into your next steps. However, if parents and teachers feel overwhelmed with the situation at hand, the school psychologist should be involved. Unfortunately, over the last 100 years, in Germany the teacher’s training has hardly changed while children and societies were subjected to significant changes. For comparison, in Norway, just to mention one example, psychological training is a prerequisite to even be able to train for a teacher.

If teachers and school psychologist are still not able to agree whether the child suffers from burnout, an experienced psychologist should be consulted. He is able to perform the necessary tests to diagnose a burnout syndrome in your child correctly.

If burnout clearly is established, an appropriate treatment can be developed. This consists of various components (also called "interventions"). For example: A special behavioural training, counselling sessions, targeted social support through the child’s environment, as well as relaxation- and concentration exercises. Even a modification in the assessment of the child’s performance, as well as the optimization of work process, can become part of the tools to combat burnout in children.


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