The stress and worries parents feel may negatively impact their kids, according to a recent study by the American Psychological Association. Find out how to conquer stress for a healthier home.
Whether you’re watching the local news, reading yet one more article about the slow-moving economy, or anxiously checking and re-checking the status of your 401-K, it’s impossible to deny that we’re living in an increasingly stressful time. Although economists continue to report that the “Great Recession” has been over for the better part of a year, many families still have yet to feel the full effects of recovery. And the economy is just one of a million things to feel stressed about: You could be wondering who will pick the kids up from school then get them to soccer or ballet practice; what to make for dinner (and is there cheese in the fridge?); how to find time to help them with their homework and prepare for your own work day the following morning…our to-do lists can be endless, and as soon as we check something off, it’s back on the list for tomorrow! What if you and your spouse have been experiencing marital difficulties? What if your kids have been going through a hard time at school? Whatever the issue, sometimes it’s easy to feel like there’s no light at the end of the stress tunnel.
Loud and Clear
Sometimes we can’t help letting everyday anxieties and stresses get the best of us. And it’s all too easy to forget that just because they’re young, children aren’t immune to stress, either — especially their parents’. According to a recent study conducted by the American Psychological Association, children are far more aware of their parents’ stress than we give them credit for.
The APA’s recent “Stress in America” report reveals that most parents are well aware of what they should do to combat stress (balanced diet and exercise, socializing), but when faced with a lack of time or energy, an overwhelming majority of adults still end up letting stress get the best of them, usually at the emotional expense of their children. In the APA’s stress poll, nearly one-third of parents reported that they didn’t think their stress had a negative effect on their children, while a resounding 91 percent of children reported back that they are quite aware of their parents’ stress when it is exhibited in behaviors such as complaining, arguing, or yelling. Other signs include when parents are vocal about their problems with their children, or tell them that they don’t have enough time to spend with them.
If parents were more aware of the impact their stressed behavior has on kids, would they do anything to curb it? Will you? What are some simple techniques to employ when you need to blow off steam, but you don’t want it affecting your children? Following are some ways to, as the APA puts it, “lead by example,” (where kids instinctively imitate their parents’ behavior):
Become aware. Rockland-based psychiatrist Stephen Lee suggests that you first accept the fact that stress will be an inevitable part of everyday life. “Become aware of your own patterns of stress, and learn to anticipate them,” Dr. Lee says. “With awareness, a parent can learn to respond to stress proactively rather than reactively. Without awareness, a parent will be far more likely to displace their reactions to stress — such as disappointment or irritability — onto their children. Awareness is key.”
Apologize. If you learn to anticipate stressful outbursts but still have trouble containing them, Dr. Lee suggests that you apologize to your children if you feel your anger has gotten out of hand. “Apologizing is a very powerful form of modeling taking responsibility for one’s own actions.” That way, as they get older, your children will learn to recognize that loud outbursts may sometimes happen — but those flare-ups are not the ideal way to deal with stress.
Communicate. Dr. Lee mentions the importance of communicating effectively with your child when you feel stressed. To do this, he advises learning to “bracket” negative behavior. “This means alerting your children to the possibility of future missteps. Helping them understand that when you sometimes ‘lose it,’ you are not perfect, but that you are solely responsible, and you will do your best to prevent such missteps in the future.”
Even when you’re not feeling stressed, nurture an open, communicative relationship with your children. “Talk to them on a regular basis, especially during non-stressful times. Talking about problems does not promote stress. It prevents it,” Dr. Lee says.
Cool off. Queens-based psychiatrist Marina Doulova offers some extra techniques of her own for cooling off quickly when faced with stressful emotions before they get out of hand. “Be aware of how your body and mind interact,” says Doulova. “Reassure yourself that this is a temporary feeling that will pass once you develop control. Start symptom-relief techniques such as deep-breathing through your stomach, or muscle relaxation.”
Go outside. When push comes to shove, both psychiatrists and the APA believe that engaging in physical activity with your children is perhaps the most effective solution for alleviating stress for you and your kids. The APA argues that children are quick to de-stress using sedentary activities such as reading, listening to music, or watching TV — and while these activities can feel helpful for a little while, they can also contribute to childhood obesity, another common side-effect of stress.
Ideally, your kids should spend some time outside, playing games or sports, going on scavenger hunts, or doing something as simple as going for a short walk. “Develop your individual and interpersonal repertoire for combating stress proactively such as exercise, meditation, or socializing,” offers Dr. Lee. “Proactive de-stressing means to implement regularly scheduled activities that prevent stress and foster a sense of well-being. This could be a family outing, a solitary walk along the river, or an enjoyable one-on-one event between parent and child.”a solitary walk along the river, or an enjoyable one-on-one event between parent and child.”
Also see: 8 Tips for Feeling Happier During an Unhappy Time
Our guide to family and children's therapists in the New York City area