As the parent of my own young children and having worked with many parents over the years, I can say there may be nothing in life that brings greater fulfillment than being a parent. However, it also brings tremendous stress.
In fact, the very idea of striving to be a good parent can be a source of significant stress. Most of us are acutely aware when we are falling short of this ideal and we can become plagued by a sense of guilt and shame. It’s not your fault. The cultural expectations for parents continues to increase, while shared care-taking of children has decreased. This shift has caused an enormous burden on parents to fulfill all their children’s basic needs, and live up to societal expectations of working hard in a successful career while simultaneously ensuring your child is a socially sensitive and well-rounded Ivy League graduate. The deck is stacked against us.
This nearly impossible standard of being a “good parent,” that many of us tacitly agreed to, intensifies the pressure and constant stress that not only creates a slew of health issues for us, but gets passed down to our children, who are also becoming stressed out in huge numbers. Yes, stress is contagious, particularly when it’s passed from parent to child. In her article, “The Epidemic of Stressed Parents Raising Stressed Kids: From Generation X to Generation Stress” Kristin Race, Ph.D. argues that all the stress that parents are experiencing, is causing a whole new generation of stressed out children. She cites statistics showing that anxiety and depression are on the rise for elementary school students and that 20% of all school-aged children have a diagnosable mental disorder. In one telling bit of research, she reports Xanex is often now the “drug of choice” for teens.
So, how do we put the brakes on all of this and reclaim our balance? To begin, stop and put the oxygen mask on yourself first. Just as stress is contagious, so are other emotions. When we are able to reduce our own stress and increase our joy, this too is passed along to our family. Our children will benefit immensely when we are less stressed and feeling more at ease. So instead of trying to manage our children’s emotions and behavior so much, perhaps our children would be better served by us managing our own stress. Thankfully, there are many things we can do to manage our stress.
Drop out of the Rat Race - There’s a wise saying that even if you win the rat race, you’re still a rat. You don’t have to buy into the expectations that our culture puts on parents. Nor do you have to place your own self-worth on meeting impossibly high expectations. Prioritize what is important to you about being a parent and then let that be your guide. Comparing yourself to other parents and trying to keep up with them is often a recipe for more stress for you and your kids.
Practice Mindfulness Meditation - Participants in courses like Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) have shown significant reductions in stress. Regular mindfulness meditation practice is an effective tool for managing stress. I developed a Stress Reduction mindfulness meditation series on the Evenflow App which I highly encourage you to try out. This can be a wonderful way to support yourself as you encounter the trials and tribulations of parenting in the modern world. Even practicing as little as 10 minutes per day, can have positive effects.
Self-Compassion - Parenting is hard enough without beating ourselves up. We all make mistakes and act in ways towards our children that are not ideal. Realize you are doing the best you can, given your circumstances and history. This is not to condone continuing harmful behavior, but rather a compassionate acknowledgment of the way things are. When you approach yourself with compassion, the natural extension of that is to behave in caring and non-harming ways towards yourself and others.
Be Present and Notice the Good - Set aside time each day to put away all distractions and just be present with your child. This can be tough, but even for a few minutes a day try to put aside any agenda other than just being with your child and fully present. Stress rises when multiple things are demanding our attention. By taking time to devote our attention to just our child we setting the stage for a lower stress, better quality interaction. See if you might also notice their good qualities during the interaction. Get a sense of what it feels like to really enjoy being with your child.
Accept Some Stress - It’s not possible or even ideal to get rid of all stress. Some stress is helpful and gives us the focus and energy we need to tackle everyday problems. So instead of striving to get rid of stress totally, aim for moderating your stress so that it doesn’t become toxic.
The Bigger Picture - It can sometimes be hard to recognize the difference between big deals and little deals in parenting. We often worry that one behavior is going to expand into a full blown character flaw later in life. It’s very difficult to “trust the process” of growing up. And yet, somehow we all developed into adults. Asking yourself, “is this going to matter (next week, month, or five years from now)” will help give you some much needed perspective when your child is refusing to eat their vegetables.
Recognize Your Limits - It’s okay to say no. Your child will survive if they don't do everything. I love the acronym HALT. If I am Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired, I need to take steps to care for myself or risk causing harm to myself or others. Seething resentment makes you and everyone around you miserable. It is far better to pause and care for yourself rather than plunge forward with a bad attitude.
There is no getting around it - parenting in the modern age is stressful. We feel it, our partner if we have one feels it, and most of all our kids feel it. However, you can be the one who injects more calm and ease in your family. By letting go of what everyone else thinks is important, connecting with what is most important to you as a parent, and reducing your own stress you can reclaim the balance your family and you desire. For more help on managing stress check out my series on Stress Reduction in the Evenflow app.