I have 2 kids -- 6 1/2 and 5 years old. My husband works long hours and I am alone with them most of the time. It seems like all I do is scream and yell, because my stress level is so high. Money is short and I'm tired all the time. When something breaks down -- yesterday it was the dishwasher -- I fall apart in front of my kids. Now my children are hitting and having lots of meltdowns. What should I do to get a handle on things?
All Strung Out
Dear All Strung Out,
One of the most challenging things about being a parent is the fact that our children are always watching us, taking their cues about how to handle life's ups and downs from what they see us doing. Whether we’re gripping the steering wheel at a red light because we're late for an appointment, or shouting at someone who took the parking space we had our eye on, their cameras are always rolling.
When we handle stress in unhealthy ways — with anger, blame, shouting and so forth — we teach our children to do the same. As hard as it is to manage life's difficult moments, your children are helping you see that it may be time to look for healthier ways to offload your stress. Here are some tips that should lighten your load:
- Simplify your life. Most of us take on more than we can handle, and then feel resentful about having said “yes” when we wanted to say “no.” Be brave about trimming your commitments down to those that are either essential or bring you satisfaction or enjoyment of some kind. It may be that you have to bow out of the PTA bake sale so you have time to walk with a friend once a week. Do it!
- Get enough sleep. One of the best ways to boost your ability to cope with stress is to get more rest. The average person needs 7 to 8 hours a night to recharge. When we shortchange ourselves on sleep, we can experience problems with mood regulation, focus, memory, illness and (of course) stress. If you need to take an afternoon nap with your toddler instead of tackling the dirty dishes, take the nap. The more rested you feel, the better able you'll be to deal with life's challenges.
- Don't take things personally. Have you ever wondered why a particular experience can cause one person to feel terribly hurt, while another shrugs it off as no big deal? People who are more easygoing don't take things as personally, and are less caught up in winning approval. Rather than letting your blood boil when your mother-in-law suggests that she never had problems getting her children to clean up their toys (really?), allow her comments to roll off your back without turning them into a declaration about your worth as a mother.
- Exercise. One of the best ways to fortify yourself against stress is to exercise regularly. Not all of us are gym rats; I understand. But think about what you loved to do when you were a child. Did you like to jump rope? Ride your bike? Choose something that you actually enjoy, and consider finding an exercise buddy to make it more fun. Not only will you be better able to cope with stress -- you'll be in better health, too!
- Aim for imperfection. Many of us have internalized someone else's voice in our head — a critical parent or teacher, perhaps -- and feel that we're never good enough. Aiming for constant perfection creates ongoing stress. If you’re too tired to clean your house before your relatives come for dinner, allow your best to be good enough.
- Breathe in, breathe out. A few slow, calming breaths can instantly reset your stress-meter. Some people like to recite a word or phrase like, “Calm...calm...” or “peaceful...peaceful...” while breathing deeply. Others like to hum, or even sing. You may want to explore meditation. Even a few minutes a day can work wonders at helping re-set and get grounded; there are even free guided meditations available online. Whatever gets you breathing and physically relaxed will help you manage your difficult moments with more grace and ease.
- Play. Remember what it was like to have fun? For many parents, life is about crossing things off a to-do list. Without time built into each day for nourishing our spirit, we become more vulnerable to frustration and stress. Laugh. Tell jokes. Draw. Have a dance contest with your children. These small acts can make a big difference in your stress level by helping you reconnect with the playful and happy parts of yourself that can get buried under the list of things to do.
- Get support. For most parents, the tasks involved with raising children are endless; they keep us running from morning to night. If you're exhausted or need a break, ask for help. Get to know a few other parents who will swap school drop offs, pick ups, or even join a rotating afternoon homework club that moves from house to house. We are meant to raise children in a tribe or with the support of an extended family. If you don't have a network of caring, trustworthy people to lean on, it’s time to create one.
- Do one thing at a time. Most parents try to juggle far too many tasks at once, in the name of efficiency. This can lead to tremendous stress, not to mention mistakes. Slow down. Focus on the one thing you're doing at a given moment -- whether it's serving a snack or changing a diaper. Even more, give your children your undivided attention for at least 10 to 15 minutes a day when you aren't trying to get them to do something. Receiving your positive attention will have the added benefit of motivating your children to be more cooperative.
Life in today's fast-paced world can wear us down, causing us to be increasingly vulnerable to stress as we feel burdened by the never-ending demands placed upon us. Consider these tips, and take time to re-evaluate where you can make adjustments in your daily life that will help you handle those difficult experiences more easily. You'll not only be doing yourself a favor -- your children will benefit from seeing their mom take care of herself. You’ll show them that they too can learn to cope with life's frustrations in healthier ways.
Yours in parenting support,
Parent Coach, Susan Stiffelman, is a licensed marriage and family therapist and credentialed teacher. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in developmental psychology and a Master of Arts in clinical psychology. Her book, Parenting Without Power Struggles, is available on Amazon. Sign up to get Susan's free parenting newsletter.