How To Feel Less Stressed as a Parent
Parents are experiencing more stress than ever... so what can we do about it?
Source: Gustavo Fring/Pexels
Why Are Parents So Stressed?
Parents are currently experiencing an unprecedented level of stress. The COVID-19 pandemic created enormous health and financial stressors, as well as an employment crisis. Not surprisingly, research finds that parental stress, as well as symptoms of anxiety and depression, increased significantly following the pandemic. The stressful disruptions of the pandemic may have also increased the likelihood of families to experience more traumatic incidents. For example, 29% of parents report that their children have witnessed more domestic violence and 42% of parents report that their children have experienced increased verbal emotional abuse following the pandemic. At the same time, gun violence in the United States has increased to the point that death by firearms is now the leading cause of death in children (surpassing car accidents which was the leading cause of death in children for 60 years).
These recent events have also led parents to feel uncertain about what they previously considered to be absolute truths, such as safety at school, their health, and their access to friends and hobbies that they enjoy. Research finds that experiencing this type of uncertainty is likely to increase stress and anxiety. The brain requires a lot of energy to process uncertainty and this takes energy away from other important processes in the brain and body, potentially leading to difficulty with memory and executive functioning, as well as health issues.
Finally, many parents may also be experiencing lingering “brain fog” after the pandemic, making it harder for them to function in their everyday lives. Research finds that “brain fog” (meaning an experience of feeling confused or “out of it”, mental slowness, or difficulty concentrating or remembering) is relatively common both in people who were infected by COVID-19 and those who were not, likely due to the stress and disruptions of the pandemic.
How Can Parents Reduce Their Stress (According to Research)?
So how do we cope with this inordinate amount of stress? Is there anything we can do to decrease our stress levels?
Accept that you can’t be a “perfect” parent: A lot of our stress as parents involves feeling guilty about ways we have “failed” our kids or worrying that we might make the wrong decision for our children. However, it is impossible to be a perfect parent and the quest for perfection may actually be harmful to both our mental health and the mental health of our children. Research finds that an intensive parenting style and child-centrism (meaning consistently prioritizing your child’s needs over your own needs) is associated with increased stress and depression in parents. To avoid this parenting style, try to resist over-scheduling your child with activities that stress you out, prioritize your own needs occasionally, do not feel pressured to engage with your child every moment of the day, and allow your child to play independently. Also, remind yourself that being a “perfect” parent should not even be the goal. Not only is perfectionism likely to cause psychological distress for you as the parent, but being a perfectionist as a parent may also cause anxiety in your children and make them more likely to become a perfectionist themselves. So give yourself a break and remind yourself that all your children really need from you is love.
Learn how to tolerate uncertainty: The pandemic and all of the disruptions to daily life that occurred as a result have dramatically increased the level of uncertainty in our lives. Uncertainty is a huge source of stress and it is even more stressful for people with high levels of “intolerance of uncertainty,“ meaning people who tend to see any uncertain situation as negative. Intolerance of uncertainty is associated with anxiety and depression and post-traumatic stress following a traumatic event. Intolerance of uncertainty may also make people less resilient, meaning that it may increase the risk that negative life events lead to anxiety. The resistance of uncertainty may contribute to engaging in behaviors aimed at reducing uncertainty such as seeking reassurance from others, researching all possible outcomes, procrastinating or avoiding tasks, refusing to delegate to others, or keeping “busy” as distraction, which only further increases anxiety about uncertainty. If you feel like this description fits for you, research on the treatment of intolerance of uncertainty suggests that you should first accept that it is impossible to be certain about everything in life. You should then try to recognize that uncertainty can also lead to positive outcomes (for example, unexpected successes). Most importantly, rather than avoid uncertainty, you can try to seek out situations that are unpredictable or uncertain without seeking reassurance from others, analyzing all possible outcomes, or distracting yourself. For example, don’t plan anything for the weekend and just go with the flow, travel somewhere new without doing any research, try a new activity or hobby that you aren’t sure you will like, or simply turn off your phone for a few hours (our phones are one of the most common ways that we avoid uncertainty). The more you practice tolerating uncertain situations and realize that it isn’t as bad as you thought, the better you will become at tolerating and accepting uncertainty in your life.
Practice mindfulness: Practicing mindfulness may seem like an annoying suggestion to an already stressed parent but it really only needs to take a few minutes. Research finds that mindfulness can help parents to accept and not overly react to negative life events, understand the emotions of themselves and their child, control their own emotions in challenging parenting situations, and have more compassion for themselves and their child. Research also shows that mindfulness interventions are very effective at reducing parenting stress. So how exactly do busy parents learn how to practice mindfulness? Mindfulness apps can be a great place to start! A review of mindfulness apps on iTunes and Google Apps provided expert ratings on various apps and found that Headspace had the highest score, followed by Smiling Mind, iMindfulness, and Mindfulness Daily. Another study found that the Calm app reduced stress and increased self-compassion and improved sleep issues.
Try to solve the problem: Research finds that teaching parents problem-solving skills helps to improve stress and results in improved child behavior. Parents who are taught effective problem-solving also show fewer symptoms of depression and improved mental health more generally. Effective problem solving involves the following steps: 1) clearly define the problem, 2) write out all possible solutions, 3) evaluate each solution one-by-one to determine the best solution, 4) implement the best solution, 5) evaluate whether the solution worked to address the problem and tweak it as needed. For problems you can’t solve, allow yourself to think about it, admit that it is hard, and experience all of your feelings about it. Research finds that people who engage rather than disengage with thoughts related to their stress show improved well-being and stress does not negatively affect them to the same extent.
Seek out social connection: Research finds that support from family, friends, and other parents is essential to parents’ well-being. Social support may also help you to cope with traumatic events and reduce the risk of postpartum mood disorders. Unfortunately, a lot of parents lost their social support network during the pandemic. Now may be the time to work on reforming your “village” of support. You can reach out to other parents at your child’s school, find local parenting groups, or try out a new hobby that involves other people, such as a running club or tennis clinic. When you have built your “village”, don’t be afraid to reach out for help! You will be surprised to find that other parents are often happy to help.
Prioritize sleep: Research finds that becoming a parent is associated with less sleep, yet sleep deprivation is associated with increased stress, emotional dysregulation, and depression. Get more sleep by going to sleep and waking up at the same time every day, avoiding electronics an hour before bed, limiting caffeine to the morning and early afternoon, avoiding alcohol and nicotine, getting regular exercise, and making sure your bedroom is a quiet and calm place.
Reframe challenging behavior: As parents, our children’s behavior can be a huge source of stress. To reduce this stress, try to view your child’s misbehavior as a product of their developmental stage and lack of skills rather than intentional “acting out”. Research finds that parents who view their child’s behavior in this way experience less stress.
Seek help from a mental health professional: If stress seems to be interfering in your everyday life, disturbing your sleep or appetite, or you feel like it is negatively impacting your relationships, seek out a consultation with a mental health professional (such as a psychologist, counselor, therapist, or social worker). Therapy, particularly cognitive behavioral therapy, is very effective in reducing stress and symptoms of anxiety. A therapist can teach you effective methods for managing stress and tolerating negative emotions. After the pandemic, there are many telehealth options available (that is, therapy provided through secure video chatting). Telehealth therapy may be easier for parents without child care assistance or who live in rural areas.
All Parenting Translator newsletters are reviewed by an expert in the field to make sure they are as accurate and as helpful for you as possible. Today’s newsletter was reviewed by three experts on the topic.
Caitlin Slavens and Chelsea Bodie are two Registered Psychologists in Alberta Canada. They are passionate about supporting moms through their perinatal journey to raising littles! Their journeys have led them to supporting moms and families as they transition into parenthood. As well as a focus on child development and working with children.Chelsea is certified in perinatal mental health and trained in areas related to perinatal challenges (such as grief/loss, infertility, perinatal mood disorders, birth trauma, NICU, and using EMDR for perinatal mental health). Caitlin is trained in EMDR and applying EMDR for kids. She also has training and is passionate about attachment therapy, parenting support and techniques, and maternal mental health. Between the two of them they have 4 kids ranging from 5 to 6 months old. As two best friends and moms they understand how challenging parenting can be and have created a supportive community that can be found at www.instagram.com/mamapsychologists/.
Carolyn Rubenstein, Ph.D., is a psychologist in private practice in Florida who specializes in anxiety, burnout, and perfectionism. She particularly enjoys helping anxious overachievers experience greater ease by finding worth in being, not just doing. Dr. Rubenstein received her undergraduate degree in Psychology from Duke University, She received a M.A. in Psychology from Harvard University and a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from University of Miami. Dr. Rubenstein is the Chief Wellness Adviser for Misfits Gaming Group, a global esports and entertainment leader, building thoughtfully tailored programs from the ground up for its competitive teams and content creators to boost performance and prevent burnout. She lives in South Florida with her husband and two young kids. Follow Dr. Rubenstein on Instagram for practical strategies on managing your mental health amidst the chaos of daily life (https://www.instagram.com/carolynrubensteinphd/).
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Welcome to the Parenting Translator newsletter! I am Dr. Cara Goodwin, a licensed psychologist with a PhD in child psychology and mother to three children (currently an almost-2-year-old, 4-year-old, and 6-year-old). I specialize in taking all of the research that is out there related to parenting and child development and turning it into information that is accurate, relevant, and useful for parents! I recently turned these efforts into a non-profit organization since I believe that all parents deserve access to unbiased and free information. This means that I am only here to help YOU as a parent so please send along any feedback, topic suggestions, or questions that you have! You can also find me on Instagram @parentingtranslator, on TikTok @parentingtranslator, and my website (www.parentingtranslator.com).