Taking Care of Yourself

Managing stress as a parent

Parenting. It's one of the hardest jobs in the world. While there's no doubt that it brings immense joy to your life, it can also bring a fresh set of challenges and stresses. Some come and go, while others stick around a little longer. And sometimes, it can just be overwhelming. But understanding what parenting stress is, where it might be coming from, and how to manage it, will not only help with your own wellness, but the wellness of your child too.

What is parenting stress?

Simply put, parenting stress is the unique stress you feel as a parent, and happens when the challenges of parenting outweigh your perceived ability to cope. Decades of research show us that the stress you experience is a complex interaction between the experience of a stressor (for example going from two incomes to one), your view of that stressor as threatening (you might not think you'll have enough spare money for extras), and how well we believe we can cope.

What contributes to parenting stress?

The thing is, all parents experience stress. So you're definitely not alone. Things like relationship difficulties, work problems, health problems, and financial or housing difficulties are all common challenges most parents face at some stage. In addition, there are also internal stresses like fatigue, increased responsibility, and feelings of guilt or worry. You might also be worried about your lack of spare time for fun and relaxing activities. This is all is perfectly normal, but there's no doubt it can make parenting extra challenging.

Overall, those who have less parenting knowledge, see themselves as less competent, have fewer sources of support, have fewer active problem-focused coping skills, use more negative labels to describe their children's behaviour (for example, "she always does this just to annoy me") tend to experience higher levels of stress. On the other hand, if you're someone with positive coping skills (e.g. planning or asking for support) and beliefs ("I can manage this behaviour"), you're more likely to experience lower levels of stress.

What are the impacts?

It's natural for all parents to experience stress, particularly with so many new experiences. And the thing is, most children develop normally despite this. But it's the higher levels of stress that cause problems. When this happens, it can impact your wellbeing and how you behave, as well as your relationship with your children and their emotional and behavioural development.

It can lead to an increased risk of parental depression, parent-child attachment difficulties, and more authoritative and disciplinary parenting practices. It's a two-way relationship. Ongoing parenting stress can increase the risk of child behavioural problems, and greater behavioural problems can increase stress.

What if my child has specific health or developmental difficulties?

If your child has chronic health difficulties, or developmental disorders, your likelihood of experiencing parenting stress is increased. Between 7% and 18% of children may be affected by a chronic health condition (cancer, diabetes, epilepsy, arthritis, asthma, or cystic fibrosis). And while different illnesses present different challenges, some of the factors associated with greater parenting stress includes more parental responsibility, more invasive health and medical procedures, more severe illness, and restricted day-to-day activities.

Managing parenting stress

The good thing is, there's plenty of research happening to combat parenting stress, particularly among families at risk. Findings highlight that the ways to do this are by increasing knowledge, social support and active coping skills, as well as changing the negative global views of children's behaviour. Below, you'll find some easy and practical ways for you to minimise stress and take better care of yourself.

Summing it up

  • What: Parenting stress is the unique stress that happens when the challenges of parenting outweigh your perceived ability to cope.
  • How: Feeling stress as a parent is normal. You can experience it from a range of sources, including work, health, relationships and money. But it's when these problems become overwhelming that they can lead to parenting stress. Some other factors include how much knowledge and support you have, how good your coping skills are, and whether or not your child suffers from chronic health difficulties or developmental disorders.
  • Who: Every parenting journey is different. The stresses and challenges you face are unique, and depend on your own circumstances.
  • Why: Understanding parenting stress, where it might be coming from, and how to manage it is important. Not only will this help with your own wellbeing, it will help your child's too.

Ways to take care of yourself and manage stress

  1. Notice your thinking – remember your thoughts are powerful. So be mindful of what your 'default' view is of your child's behaviour. Do you think, "She always does this just to annoy me"; or "I wonder why she's behaving like this? What can I do differently that might help her manage her behaviour." Switching from certainty to curiosity is a simple yet effective way to think positively and minimise stress.
  2. Be realistic – you're only human. So be realistic about what you can achieve. How clean can your house really be? How many extra commitments you can take on? It's helpful to accept that your child is only human too. This means that sometimes they just won't sleep; they'll make a mess, not listen, and will yell and scream. But this is all part of the journey. So just take one thing at a time.
  3. Take a break – it's a full-time job being a parent, but even full-time workers take breaks. So make some time every day to slow down and do something just for you. Sit and read a magazine, get out in the garden, or phone a friend. Taking some time off also gives your child a break allows you work on being a better, more patient parent.
  4. Identify your stressors – it's a great first step, and jotting them down in a journal can be helpful. For example, if you've identified that not having enough time to yourself is a stressor, you'll find it easier to come up with solutions, like asking your mum to babysit every Tuesday. Being validated for what you're dealing with can also be really helpful, even if a solution isn't immediate. So find a close friend that will listen to you and offer support.
  5. Be honest with yourself - do you tend to smoke, drink, yell, swear, or slam doors when you are stressed? If you can honestly question yourself, you'll be in a better position to identify what makes you stressed. Only then you can discover what coping skills might work for you. For example, getting some fresh air, taking deep breaths, or writing down your feelings.
  6. Manage the daily hassles – is there anything others can do to make your home feel more ordered and less cluttered? Do you feel relaxed or stressed when you walk through the front door? Ask family members to help manage the little things, like tidying the living room, or cleaning the kitchen – just so you're not doing everything!
  7. Keep track – a little bit of organisation goes a long way, and problem-solving ahead of time can help reduce stress in the moment. So keep track of things in a diary or calendar, write lists, and plan the week's meals before you go shopping. The more time you create, the less frantic you'll feel.
  8. Remember the basics – parenting is a wonderful yet stressful time, and it can be easy to forget about your own wellbeing. But a healthy lifestyle can really help with minimising stress. So remember to exercise, eat well and get enough sleep. Sometimes when we're stressed, it's easy to slip into bad habits – takeaways, wine and late-night TV – which can leave us feeling even more stressed. There's nothing wrong with slipping every now and then, but it's about having nurturing and healthy options in your repertoire as a foundation.
  9. Seek help – talk with your GP, especially if you're feeling overwhelmed and having trouble coping. In New Zealand, you can ask for a referral to a counselling or support service in your community, for example, Plunket Parents As First Teachers, Family Start, or Barnardos.
  10. Say "No" – it's a small word, but it can go a long way in minimising stress. It's not easy, but saying no to invitations, committees, work or activities you don't have the time or energy for, is good for your health and happiness. Start by saying 'no' to something small and see how it goes. It gets easier with practice, and by saying it when you need to most, you're actually giving yourself more time to say 'yes' to thing things that replenish, relax or energise you.
  11. Say "Yes" – this means knowing when to accept offers of help. Friends and family are often more than happy to babysit, so that you can have some time away, even if it's just for a couple of hours. If you do something with your partner to reconnect, you'll hopefully return feeling relaxed and recharged!
  12. Switch off – we might live in a world where it's easy to be available 24/7, but it's important to try and switch off. Try turning off your phone for a while, or have a day free of technology. You might find that taking a long bath, walk, or nap without any interruptions can be incredibly relaxing.
  13. Just breathe – when we're feeling stressed, we tend to breathe in short, shallow breaths, which can actually lead to increased muscle tension. Here's a few quick tips to ease the stress:
    • Physically relax your posture and muscles; focus on each muscle at a time, starting from your feet and work your way up
    • Take several deep, slow breaths
    • Identify things you find physically soothing and try to plan these into your day. For example, having a bath, applying hand cream, or lying in the sun with your eyes closed
  14. Talk it out - you've heard the saying, "A problem shared is a problem halved". It's true. Chatting to your partner or a friend about what's winding you up can really help. And often, it'll allow you to come up with some useful strategies. Being around other people, even if you don't talk about anything important, can sometimes be enough to change your mood.
  15. Enjoy the outdoors – even if it's for a short amount of time. Just take a few deep breaths and look around. What can you see? Hear? Smell? If you can be in the moment for just a few minutes, it'll do wonders for your stress levels.
  16. Have some fun – doing fun things together with your child like cuddling up with a book, throwing a ball around or getting out the play dough, is a great way to relax. Giving your child your full attention will also help to fill up their emotional tank, and hopefully decrease any negative behaviour which, as we all know, can be super stressful.
  17. Do your research – when it comes to parenting, most of us need a bit of help. So read up on parenting books, attend courses, and search online for coping strategies. Equipping yourself with positive parenting techniques will go a long way in diffusing stressful situations, and will help you steer clear of the more disciplinary parenting practices that can sometimes be our default position.
  18. Build your support network – it's one of the most important things for minimising stress, especially if you're a stay-at-home parent. So get to know other parents in your neighbourhood or join your local playgroup. Other parents can become your lifeline during stressful times.

Some further reading

For helpful tips on managing stressful parenting situations such as tantrums, whining, and sibling rivalry, visit SKIP (Strategies for Kids, Information for Parents).

For practical tips on minimising stress from the Child Development Institute: http://childdevelopmentinfo.com/family-living/stress/

Stress management tips for new parents: www.healthline.com/health/stress/management-for-new-parents#Overview1

Author Gretchen Rubin (www.gretchenrubin.com) has written a couple of books about her pursuit of happiness that have some useful advice (including "Don't let perfect get in the way of good") - The Happiness Project and Happier at Home.

Rushing Women's Syndrome – The impact of a never ending to-do list on our health by Dr Libby Weaver, makes for good reading and good sense: https://nz.drlibby.com/products/Rushing_Woman_s_Syndrome

The American Psychological Association has an interesting article, Managing Stress for a Healthy Family: http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/managing-stress.aspx

This is a helpful New Zealand website for mums: www.mothershelpers.co.nz/

This is a helpful New Zealand website for dads: www.fatherandchild.org.nz