Parental stress is to be expected. Parenting is a seriously stressful job, and it’s impossible to always be calm and stress-free around our children.
But there is a difference in types of stress and how we manage stress. And it’s a difference we as parents need to understand.
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Daily Stress vs Long-Term Stress
General, day-to-day stressors see parents snappy and tired, but still attuned to their children’s needs and still acting like themselves.
But stress arising from out of control workplace issues, unresolved childhood issues, life change, and relationship conflict is more serious, for both you and your children. It leaves a parent distracted, edgy, and with a changing personality.
So how does serious parental stress affect children?
Stress Gives Children The Wrong Signal
Children need to feel safe and secure being themselves. This allows them to develop a healthy attachment to a parent. They then grow up into an adult who can develop healthy relationships with others.
A stressed parent often becomes a reactive parent, or a parent who exhibits fear. And the child translates that fear into the message that he or she is not safe.
Let’s look at an example. Imagine that another child hits yours as they exit the school gates. Instead or having a chat with the other parent then soothing your child, a stressed parent can feel an inner button pushed by the experience. He or she will overreact, yell at the other child, and tell off the mother.
Your own child is left to watch, uncomforted. They take on board the message that you as a parent are not available.
The world is no longer a safe place. Not because another child reached out and slapped them, but because they are left feeling, “Mommy or Daddy cannot help me.” Worse, they can somehow feel it’s all their fault, and stop feeling comfortable being themselves.
Stress transfers from one person to another through what is called ‘empathic stress’.
If we are watching someone else be stressed, we don’t just feel their stress mentally or emotionally, we even replicate it biologically. Our own cortisol levels shoot up.
A 2014 German/USA study found that if the person observing knows the stressed out person intimately, they the react up to 40 per cent more strongly. Given how attuned children are to their parents, you can imagine how acutely they can feel parental stress.
Infants and Stressed Mothers
A study that hit headlines showed that parental stress is ‘contagious’ for infants. Cardiovascular sensors measured the heart rates of mothers and infants both before and after the mother was asked to give a presentation.
The mothers who were given negative feedback on their presentation were reunited with their babies. Within two minutes the babies heart rates increased. It was as if they were ‘catching’ their mothers stress.
Children Mimic Your Stressful Habits
‘Modelling’ is a psychological term for the way we learn by observation. It’s not as simple as just imitation. For example, we also decide whether or not to take on a behaviour depending on the result we see the other person achieving with it.
But the more consistent your behaviours are, the more you child sees you achieving things through stress – getting things by yelling, for example? The more likely they are to begin to act just like you.
Stress and Ad Hoc Parenting
Stress causes exhaustion and foggy thinking. The more stressed we are, the less consistent our parenting becomes. We start substituting healthy meals with junk food, we don’t notice that our kid’s bedtime has passed, we forget to sign the permission slip. These are, on their own, not the be all and end all of parenting.
But the more we let our parental stress go on, the more this can become a growing snowball of inconsistency. While naturally resilient children might manage, a child who needs structure can start to exhibit his or her own stress in response.
So What Can Be Done About Parental Stress?
There are many good tactics to protect your children against your stress. These include:
- learning mindful parenting
- being honest with your child that you are not yourself
- explaining what you are going through in age-appropriate terms your child understands and does not leave your child feeling unsafe or worried
- constantly reassure your child
- deciding on healthy stress strategies (exercise over wine, reading over TV)
- sharing your strategies for stress management with your child or doing them together (thus modelling resilience and self-care over stress).
Is Parental Stress Worth Seeking Support Over?
The most important thing a parent can do if they are overwhelmed by stress is seek support.
Counselling and psychotherapy is not there just for when we hit rock bottom, it is there to stop rock bottom ever happening.
A talk therapist creates a safe space for you to vent. This means you are far less likely to take out your stress on your children. He or she helps you get to the real root of your stress.
Sometimes it turns out that parental stress has triggered old unresolved issues that are behind all the anxiety you are going through. And your therapist will help you find stress management tools that work for you personally.
Harley Therapy connects you with highly experienced London therapists who can help you with parental stress. Not in London or the UK? Try our sister site, with UK-wide therapists and Skype therapists who you can book from any country.
Still have a question about parental stress and how it affects your children? Post a comment below.