Stress is commonly defined as the failure to respond adequately to mental, emotional, or physical demands, whether real or imagined. Stress can be environmental, internal, or physical.
Stress often manifests as headaches, rapid heart rate, stomachaches, back or neck pain, sleep loss or excessive sleep, depressed mood, excessive irritability, excessive worrying, eating issues (too much or too little), social isolation, and sometimes increased alcohol consumption and/or drug use.
You’ve probably heard all of this before. You’ve likely experienced some of these symptoms during difficult times.
But did you know that your stress can and does affect your children?
Research shows that parental stress does rub off on children, which can result in headaches, sleep disturbance, stomachaches, overeating, depressed mood, and anger. In short, stress breeds stress.
We live in a stressed out world. Between financial concerns, global issues, family stress, and other environmental and internal stressors, the triggers are endless.
Parenting has become extremely stressful.
The internal stress of trying to be the perfect parent who always makes the best choices is difficult enough, but it also seems that comparisons are always being drawn between parents. Everyone has their own parenting style, there is no one “right” way to parent after all, but not everyone is accepting of the choices other parents make.
The days where tantrums are never-ending, picky eaters dig in their heels, and sibling rivalry escalates by the minute can cause even the most Zen mama to tense up.
The internal/external stress of taking your kids to social events or other family gatherings can lead to immediate tension and increased heart rate. Will they follow the rules? Will they interact appropriately? Will someone have a meltdown in the middle of an important speech? Will someone give me the look? It’s enough to make a parent want to hide out at home full time.
And the race to get into the best preschool, elementary school, and middle and high school? That’s a whole different set of stressors.
Forget about the importance of finding time to prioritize your marriage…at times that can feel nearly impossible.
We all experience stress at different times for different reasons.
What is worrisome is that research shows that most parents are unaware of the trickle down effect of stress, and often miss symptoms such as headaches, sleep disturbance, and eating issues.
We do our best to shield our children from our stress and anxiety. We talk in hushed tones, smile often, and quickly shift gears when we sense eavesdropping. We try to save the difficult conversations for post-bedtime or when the kids are at school. But even when we think we’re keeping our stress hidden, it’s still there on some level.
Even very young children can pick up on facial cues and subtle signs of stress.
Studies of mother-infant dyads show that when a mother suffers from Depression, an infant is likely to mirror depressed facial expressions and be less active than other infants (this refers to severe cases of untreated Depression).
A heavy sigh might bring a quick moment of stress relief to a tired mom, but will probably be interpreted as a sign of stress by a young child.
A faraway look or disconnect when your child is talking to you is another signal for your child that something’s not quite right.
They know when mommy seems less patient than usual and hands out consequences quickly.
They can read sadness and anger on your face better than you think.
We like to think that young children are blissfully unaware of the difficult parts of life. The truth is that they are just taking it in. They are watching our reactions to learn how to react to something similar, and they are internalizing negative feelings when we snap in response to some small behavior.
Parents need to start teaching children about stress.
- We need to define it and help them make the connections between rapid heart rate or tensed muscles and feelings of stress.
- We need to model effective ways to cope with stress.
- We need to teach breathing and visualization exercises.
- We need to teach them to reframe their thoughts and focus on something positive.
- We need to teach them to put their stress away.
- We need to take care of ourselves so that our stress doesn’t become their stress.
- We need to take care of them.
Stressed out parenting leads to stressed out kids. It’s our job to cope with our own stress so that we can teach our children effective strategies for taking care of theirs.
How do you help your kids cope with stress?
Katie is a Child & Adolescent Psychotherapist/Parenting Consultant in Los Angeles, CA. She has a four year old daughter, two year old son, and a rock and roll husband who makes her life complete. Katie has a parenting advice blog at http://practicalkatie.com/and can also be found on Twitter.