It seems to me that parents are more stressed out than ever before! The advent of smart phones has created the expectation that we should be available to respond to work queries immediately, all around the clock. When I was little it was very unusual for either of my parents to bring work home, but nowadays most parents I know continue to work after they have arrived home – to the detriment of quality time spent with their families. Children may adopt their parents’ coping strategies, incorrectly believing that constantly rushing around and overloading themselves with responsibilities indicates that they are being effective.
We no longer take the time to demonstrate to our children how to relax and unwind. What do we do when we’re totally stressed out? We arrange a date night out and leave the kids with a baby sitter. Of course you need alone time with your partner, but be careful not to only ever portray the role of busy parent to your children!
Parental stress affects children in both direct and indirect ways. A child may pick up that a parent is stressed and may feel anxious at not knowing what is causing the stress. Similarly they may feel powerless at not being able to address the problem. Parents become short of patience when they are stressed and may snap at their children unnecessarily. Stress also often leads parents to become preoccupied by their thoughts and feelings and they may thus not be available to their children when they need them.
Admittedly, it is unrealistic to expect to be able to protect your child from all stress and some forms of stress can actually be good for them. The kind of stress that comes with learning a new task or developing new coping mechanisms or problem solving skills is good stress. For instance, it is normal for children to feel a little stressed about trying to ride a bike for the first time, or when writing a test at school or figuring out how to repair a punctured bicycle tyre. But long term stress that does not lead them to grow as individuals or learn new skills are bad. I often see young children in my practice who constantly worry about their parents’ financial situation and children who worry that their parents may get divorced – this kind of stress can be very damaging.
How can a parent tell that a child is feeling stressed? When young children are stressed they might become weepy and lethargic or simply cranky, irritable and aggressive. You might notice changes in their sleeping and eating patterns. Because stress affects the immune system you might also notice that your child becomes sick very often, suffering from recurrent colds or flue. Occasionally we also see regressions in behaviour – for instance, a child who was previously potty trained might start wetting the bed, or sucking her thumb, etc.
How do you prevent parental stress from affecting your children?
It’s very important to be prudent when talking to your children about your problems. Make sure that the information you share with them is age-appropriate. For instance: young children should never have to worry about their parents’ financial situation. We’re all guilty of saying things like: “No, I can’t buy you that toy because we don’t have any money”, but rather say something like: “No, I’m not buying you that toy because we need to spend our money wisely and save it to pay for the things we really need”. Information regarding romantic relationships (and difficulties in these relationships) is also generally better kept to oneself. If you are separating from a partner it is okay to tell your child that things didn’t work out between you and your partner, but resist delving into all the reasons for why it didn’t work out.
When you tell your children about the thing that stress you out, try to always share some sort of plan with them on how intend to deal with the problem – knowing that you have a plan in place may prevent your child from becoming overly anxious. And lastly, always strive to be patient with your children and teach them to be patient as well. By modelling good coping strategies to our children we are indirectly teaching them how to deal with their own stress.