During times of stress, our personal coping resources, and consequently our parenting skills, may need a boost — or a break. A separation or divorce, an illness or death, moving, or even a financial issue like a home foreclosure can result in a storm of feelings for kids and parents alike.
Our unique perception and reaction to an event, and our personal coping resources, cause a stress response. Two people experiencing the same situation may cope very differently. One may feel intense mental or emotional tension while the other experiences only a slight bump in the road.
When parenting during times of high stress, keep in mind that stress may affect your child very differently from how it affects you as a parent. Just as parenting coping resources may be diminished under times of great stress, children may behave very differently from their norm when under great stress.
Recognizing the symptoms of stress and identifying the stressor is extremely important. A change in behavior often is a key indicator of stress. It should cause you to examine what’s going on with your child to create this change. Here are some examples:
- Recurring physical discomfort, such as a stomachache on a school morning or a bodyache every day before practice, without a health reason.
- Avoidance behaviors, such as saying they don’t want to participate in something that they used to do frequently.
- Emotional changes, such as an outgoing child withdrawing, a normally happy child seeming sad all the time, or a mild-mannered child becoming irritable or developing an explosive temper.
- School performance changes, such as plummeting grades or acting out in class.
- Increased fears or anxiety.
- Sleep changes, either trouble sleeping or sleeping much more than usual.
It’s critical to remain vigilant to unfolding and developing stresses. Residual effects of stress situations may occur over weeks, months, or even years. Sometimes, it may come back up at various developmental stages later in life as the stress is re-experienced. Continuing to be open to questions and actively listening to your children when they share their thoughts is imperative. Processing stressful situations is rarely a one-time conversation.
Below are five types of stress situations and how to handle them:
- Divorce or separation. Set the stage for your children’s long-term adjustment to this life event. Be direct and honest with them about what’s happening. Answer all their questions. Maintain your own composure. Understand that children may blame themselves.Build in some time for children to prepare for the separation if possible, but not so much that they can stew over it or start to think it won’t happen. Remain on civil terms with your ex-spouse. Ongoing parental conflict following a divorce is one of the strongest predictors of negative outcomes for kids. Don’t put your kids in the middle of your problems by badmouthing each other. You can be a good role model for behavior regardless of whether your ex-spouse is doing so. Try to keep limits and rules at each home as similar as possible. Kids can get used to different rules at different places as long as they are consistent in each.
- Illness. Illness is extraordinarily stressful regardless of whom it affects. It cannot be adequately covered in this short article. Please reach out to your extended circle of support, and try these tips:Kids thrive on predictability, even small routines. Maintaining normalcy is important. Find as many little things that can stay the same for your kids, whether it’s the time you eat dinner, a regular school and homework schedule, or the Friday night movie tradition. Avoid the impulse to overindulge or overprotect your kids. It only sends messages of fragility, incompetence, or doubt about their ability to get through this difficult situation. Balance appropriate support and protection with normal expectations and confidence in your child’s resilience.
- Financial problems. Financial uncertainty can strain a family. Kids pick up on cues from their parents, so you can assume that children will pick up on parent stress and anxiety. Yet kids may have no context at all for understanding what is going on. Explain any changes in standard of living that will affect their lives, and answer questions as honestly as you can. This helps alleviate any misinterpretations that may occur. (If kids don’t have their questions answered, they fill in the blanks with their imaginations). Above all, reassure them that you will take care of them. Allow children to share ideas of where to cut back on family spending. Low-cost or no-cost family time visiting parks, bike riding, or playing board games can be a great way to spend quality time together. Keeping active helps keep excessive worry and feelings of depression at bay.
- Moving to a new home or school. While the reasons for moving vary, the ramifications for a child often are similar: new school, new neighborhood, and (seemingly) no friends. As exciting as it may be, recognize that this transition can be tough. Give your child as many coping opportunities as possible. Prepare them as far in advance as you can. Empower kids and build self-esteem by letting them make some decisions about the move: which items they will take and which they will donate, what color to paint their new room, and so on.Provide opportunities for open communication. Ask questions that can’t be answered with just a yes or no, such as, “What do you think about that?” and “How does that make you feel?” Let kids know that you’re a little nervous about the move, too. After all, you’ll have to start out in an unfamiliar place and make new friends.
- New baby. Toddlers are famous for thinking that the new baby is an invader into their territory, but older children may react this way, too. A new baby makes the circumstances of siblings’ lives and place in the family very different. As overjoyed as you may feel, remember that siblings’ feelings may not be the same as yours. Ensure a balance of family time and individual time with parents. Safeguard the extracurricular activities your older child enjoys, even if it’s hard for you to handle them with a newborn. Acknowledge and validate your older child’s feelings and be ready to discuss her frustrations. Allow your child to vent and listen carefully to her frustrations. Empower your child by enlisting her help with the baby’s care when appropriate.
If you ever start to feel emotionally overwhelmed, seek out support. This becomes critically necessary if you are involved in the stressful situation, such as becoming ill or going through a divorce. If you don’t have a trusted friend or family member in whom you can confide, reach out to a professional or religious leader or a support group where you can process your feelings. Self-care is essential to good parenting, and at no time is this more important than when under a great deal of stress.