Managing Stress as a Parent

High levels of stress can make it hard to be calm and consistent with our children.

Stress is a natural response to a threat or a challenge. It’s our mind’s and body’s way of preparing us to respond to something difficult or unexpected. When we experience stress, our bodies have a physical reaction, and our minds race. Family life can be overwhelming, and busy, and causes stress for all of us at times.

High levels of stress can make it hard to be calm and consistent with our children. We may find it challenging to spend enjoyable quality time with our kids when we’re experiencing stress; however, children thrive when their parents are responsive and calm in the midst of chaos, and they learn to adapt to stress by observing your reactions to it. Processing stress can be incredibly challenging, but there are many tools and techniques you can practice to help manage stressful situations.

How to Recognize Stress

When we experience a stressful event or situation, our brain processes that event with a physical, emotional, and mental reaction. Which response we notice first varies from person to person, but we all have patterns of response we learned in our formative years. The trick is to identify and respond to your early warning signs of stress and implement a calming strategy to return to equilibrium and a calm presence. Then you can thoughtfully respond to your child.

Your body delivers clear warning signs that communicate your stress levels:

  • Stiff muscles (shoulders or neck tight, jaw clenching)
  • Headaches or stomach aches or butterflies
  • Irritability or anger (negative thoughts or judgments)
  • Disturbed sleep (worried thoughts, tossing and turning)
  • Problems concentrating (intruding thoughts, worries)
  • Feeling overwhelmed or unable to keep up with everything (freeze response; where do I start?)

What do you notice first in your body? When you notice a physical response, that is the time to use a calming strategy.

How to Manage/Reduce Stress 

Notice the tension and relax 

The muscles in your body naturally tighten when you get stressed. You might feel tension in your shoulders, neck, jaw, or other parts of your body.

When you notice yourself getting into a cycle of stress leading to physical tension, relaxation techniques can help. There are many ways to reduce physical symptoms of stress.

  • Breathing: Take slow, deep breaths. Breathe in through your nose, deeply into your lungs, and out through your mouth, exhaling completely. When you’ve taken a full breath, hold it in for a moment and then breathe out slowly, being sure to let out all your breath.
  • Muscle Relaxation: When you notice a specific muscle set getting tense, try to find a quiet time to relax uninterrupted. Sit or stand with your feet flat on the floor, your head held straight and your hands resting on your thighs. The aim of this exercise is to intentionally tighten and then relax each set of muscles.
  • Mindfulness: With practice, we can become more aware of what we are thinking, feeling, and doing in the present moment. Mindfulness helps us pause briefly before responding or taking action, giving us time to make a choice about what we’d really like to do or say. The aim of mindfulness is to focus on the moment by paying attention to your breathing, and what you feel and hear. If and when your mind wanders, notice those thoughts and acknowledge them, then bring it back to your breathing. By practicing mindfulness during calm times, you’ll be able to better control yourself and react in more positive ways during high-stress situations.

When you’re feeling stressed, try to catch yourself and then challenge any unhelpful thoughts you may have. These thoughts might pop up with little or no warning, and while they may feel believable during a high-stress moment, they will often seem exaggerated later on. If you find yourself thinking “I’m a terrible parent,” try to catch that this is just a thought that will cause you more stress. This might take some practice but will be very helpful in managing your stress.

Once you acknowledge that you’re having an unhelpful thought, try to challenge the thought until you’ve reached a more helpful way of thinking. To challenge these, question whether or not what you’re saying is really true. Ask yourself if you’d say this to a spouse or friend in this situation. Are you really a terrible parent, or did you have a challenging time putting the kids down for bed tonight?

When you recognize signs of stress, are able to implement a successful calming strategy, and then respond to the stressor in a proactive way, you are teaching a positive life skill to your children. It can be helpful to walk through the experience out loud- for example, you might say, “Rats! I got distracted and burned the pancakes! I’m disappointed, but it’s not the end of the world. I’m going to slow down, take a deep breath, and start over.”

Parenting is challenging, and stressful situations will arise. When all is said and done, try to have compassion for yourself. Recognize what went well in your day, and congratulate yourself for those accomplishments. If things don’t go as planned, try not to be too hard on yourself. There are things that are out of control, and not every day can go exactly as planned. Utilize your coping and stress management skills, and treat yourself with kindness.

Triple P – Positive Parenting Program

Are you interested in receiving more parenting advice? Triple P Online – Positive Parenting Program could be for you! This online parenting program allows you to take a parenting class in the comfort of your own home!

If you live in Lane County, you can get Triple P Online for free by filling out the form on the Triple P page. A staff person from Parenting Now will send you an access code within 24 hours and you’ll be able to start using the program right away! For more information about the program and to sign up visit the Triple P page.

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