Families can experience stress from negative and positive events. Coping with this stress can be key for the health and well-being of your children and family.
Families often experience different stressors. However, that stress doesn’t always come from negative events. Even happy life changes can come with their own complications and challenges.
As the world and societal circumstances change, so do the dynamics and stressors of every family. For example, the COVID-19 pandemic caused many new stressors in terms of health, financial stability, and relationship conflicts.
To adapt and persevere through change, it’s helpful to understand the types of crises families face and how to cope when life gives you and your children a new mountain to climb.
A stressor event is a situation that causes a variable amount of change to the family system. Your family system may consist of:
When these are affected by a change, it can cause additional stress and become a crisis.
There are many stressors that a family may face. They can be categorized into five major types of crises.
Divorce or separation
Divorce or separation is a significant life stressor that affects not only the couple, but also the children. During a divorce or separation, parents may be too wrapped up in their problems that they might forget how their children are affected.
The negative impact of divorce can extend to many areas of your family’s life. Some effects may show up as:
- problems at school or work (for example, when children’s grades drop or they lose interest in activities)
- depression and anxiety
- difficulty socializing with others
- trust issues
When you think of a person’s quality of life as they manage an illness, it’s helpful to also look at the quality of life of those related to them.
- Emotional impact: mental health stress felt by family due to feelings of helplessness or loss of control
- Financial impact: includes treatment costs, transportation to appointments, and the cost of hiring caregivers and therapists
- Family relationships: family member doesn‘t know how to support another emotionally or there is a loss of intimacy
- Work and education: disruption in schoolwork, loss of employment, or inability to work
- Leisure time: families may no longer enjoy leisure activities and vacations, which may impact your quality of life by making you feel more isolated, anxious, and as though you have less to look forward to
- Social: time spent away from friends and social activities
If you’re experiencing feelings of helplessness or sadness about a loved one with an illness, consider talking with a doctor about getting the help you need to cope.
When there’s financial stress, there’s often family stress. The fear of losing your possessions and looking ahead at an uncertain future can weigh on your mind.
Financial concerns may be caused by:
- job loss
- economic crisis
- temporary or permanent loss of income
A 2010 study showed that almost 30% of children worried about their families’ financial issues. This stress can result in:
- upset stomachs
- sleep problems
These stressors can:
- affect a family member’s mental health
- reduce their sense of well-being
- trigger negative feelings of fear and worry
Moving to a new home or school
People tend to naturally thrive in their routines and typical spaces. When you move to a new house or school, it can disrupt the level of comfort felt at home.
The effects of this change can worsen when children relocate because of divorce or separation. Suddenly, a child’s new living arrangement is in two different places, and they spend less time with one or both of their parents.
The child may also feel even greater negative effects if one parent moves far away.
According to a 2012 review, nearly
Although it’s a common transition, the birth of a second child may still be a stressful transition felt by the firstborn. The child no longer has the full attention of their parents, and they have to share their space.
As parents of a newborn, you may be thrilled about your new arrival, but it’s important to understand that it can still bring its own level of stress. This stress can be triggered by factors such as:
- loss of sleep
- increased financial needs
- caring for multiple children
When children become exposed to chronic (long-term) stress, it may alter their brain chemicals and physical health, impacting their health and development. Stress can affect infants and kids at critical times of growth, such as:
- early childhood
Humans respond to sudden stressors by preparing for the fight, flight, or freeze response. The brain immediately alters its chemistry, and the
When managing short-term stress, your body can return to its typical function soon.
However, when faced with chronic stress, the disruption in body chemicals lasts longer, causing issues in brain development and function. This then affects the functioning of your immune, metabolic, and cardiovascular systems, among others.
These consequences are also known as secondary outcomes of the stress response. They may affect mental and physical health for several years, which can contribute to developing:
There are many techniques and resources available to help families lessen the burden of stress on their children.
Research suggests that children as young as
So, when you talk with your children, try to use sensitive and effective communication about the changes, taking into account their ages and stages of development.
Honesty is essential, and if they don’t have the facts, children tend to make their own sense of their situations, which is not often accurate.
Your child may need reassurance from you that they’re OK and safe. It may also help to share tips on how you cope with stress so they don’t feel alone.
Keep their routine
Try to limit your child’s change in routine as much as possible. Their routine may be where they find their comfort.
For example, if your child is suddenly unable to attend school, consider creating a schedule of learning, relaxing, and fun activities similar to what they may experience in the classroom.
Spend time with them
It’s important to spend quality time together. Focus on participating in meaningful activities, such as:
- reading together
- playing games
Be a role model
Your children look up to you as their guide in life. Consider acting as a role model by trying to:
- take breaks
- get plenty of sleep
- exercise regularly
- eat a balanced, nutritious diet
It may also help to keep in touch with family and friends in times of crisis.
When families experience high amounts of stress, it can negatively impact everyone involved.
As parents, it’s easy to forget that if you’re feeling the effects of stress, chances are your children are as well, even when the stressor doesn’t directly impact them.
If you and your family are experiencing a crisis or chronic stress, help is out there.
Help during a crisis
If you’re experiencing a crisis, you can get immediate help by contacting:
- 911 or your local emergency services
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 for English or 1-888-628-9454 for Spanish
- Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741
- Disaster Distress Helpline: Call or text 1-800-985-5990 (press 2 for Spanish)
You can find additional resources at the
There are also family counselors available online and in person to help your family cope and manage stress. If your child has a doctor, you may want to speak with them about any symptoms of anxiety and depression your child may be experiencing.
It’s important to remember that you also have to take care of yourself if you want to be your best self for your kids. Try to practice self-care while seeking medical and mental health help for yourself.
You and your family can get back on your feet and face future challenges together — stronger.