Stress caused by those close to you can feel hard to escape sometimes. But learning to manage its impact is possible.

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Stress caused by loved ones can be tough. Even though we love them, children, elderly parents, and visiting relatives can leave us frazzled.

The pandemic’s impact on family routines, from virtual schooling to child care disruptions, has left parents more stressed.Even without additional burdens, balancing the demands of work and family life, caring for an older parent, or financial troubles can feel overwhelming.

But there are ways to handle stress before it gets to be too much.

Family stress can happen when there are more stressors in family members’ lives than they can handle. Family stress can be caused by many stressful events that build on each other or a single high-stress circumstance. These may occur either inside or outside the family.

Family stress can show up as:

  • arguments
  • missed commitments
  • illness

According to 2017 research, stress can play a significant role in various conditions affecting mental and physical health, especially if the stress is severe and prolonged.

Positive vs. negative stress

Positive stress, called eustress, is often short term and motivating. Negative stress, or distress, causes anxiety and feels like too much to handle.

Stress can either be a positive or a negative for families, depending on the stressor and how you cope.

For example, a child excelling in sports or a family camping trip might push the family unit outside their comfort zones. But it’s exciting and within everyone’s ability to cope.

You can learn techniques to improve coping skills so that families can transform some distress into eustress or simply lower the level of stress a situation causes.

Parenting has always been a high-stress job. Add the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on children and adults, and parenting has become more stressful than ever.

Some examples of situations that can cause stress include:

  • trying to balance work and parenting
  • caring for a new baby while trying to maintain previous responsibilities
  • relationship conflict
  • the time and scheduling burden of driving children to school, activities, and more
  • worrying about your child’s safety in public settings
  • social isolation
  • children’s education disruption
  • child care disruption
  • death or illness of a loved one
  • visiting or hosting relatives

According to the American Psychological Association (APA),parents report higher stress levels than nonparents, with 67% of adults saying their stress has increased over the pandemic.

A family is like an electrical outlet that short-circuits when it’s overloaded. Families under too much stress for a long time can develop long-term dysfunctional behavior patterns. Other results of unaddressed stress may include:

  • Arguments: This is one of the first effects of stress, commonly fueled by overloaded emotions and poor communication.
  • Health problems: Exhaustion or burnout in busy, conflicting schedules can build and cause both physical and mental illness.
  • Substance overuse: Increased dependence on food, alcohol, or drugs may occur due to stress.
  • Family discord: Lasting feuds or estrangement can occur among family members, especially those who don’t live together.
  • Difficulties outside the home: New challenges may arise at school or home, either with productivity or behavior.

Many family scenarios that signal family stress may not seem related to stress. If your child starts acting out at school, stress may not be the first thing that comes to mind as its cause, but it could be the main factor.

Some of the most common causes of family stress include:

Family stress can flare up for you and your family, no matter what role you find yourself in. Here are some stress management tips from the American Psychological Association and the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation:

If you’re a parent . . .

Parenting can be especially stressful, but to ease tension, it may be helpful to try:

  • adjusting your priorities and standards
  • avoiding taking on unnecessary duties
  • finding out where you are on the parental stress scale
  • practicing meditation or relaxation exercises
  • accepting help that’s offered or hire outside help if you can afford it
  • taking advice from people whose opinions you trust
  • taking care of yourself first
  • getting ahead by preparing as much as possible for the following day
  • keeping communicating with your children, and taking the time to ease their worries

If you’re a kid . . .

Some helpful ways kids and teens can ease stress might be:

  • talking about what’s troubling you
  • exercising every day
  • eating nutritious foods, like protein and vegetables
  • sticking to a daily routine
  • getting enough sleep

If you’re an adult family relative . . .

Family dynamics can be complex and stressful at times.

When you visit relatives, consider:

  • planning your visit so that you don’t stay too long
  • having reasonable responses prepared for potentially stressful conversations
  • communicating to children that it’s important to behave well
  • going for a walk or taking a nap if you get upset

When relatives visit you, try:

  • planning your sleeping arrangements, meals, and budgeting in advance
  • accepting help with cooking and cleaning
  • stocking the kitchen with food that’s easy to prepare
  • keeping alcohol consumption to a minimum, especially if you tend to argue

If you’re a caregiver…

Caregiving is an important — but often stressful — role. Try these tips for managing caregiver stress in your family:

  • asking for and accepting help when you need it
  • taking the training you need to help your loved one
  • making time to take breaks every day
  • practicing self-care
  • visiting friends and family outside the house, even on Zoom, for a pick-me-up

No matter how stressed your family may feel, there’s always a way to move toward each other and not away.

Consider reaching out to a family therapist. A counselor or therapist can help you work on communication and coping skills and help you find solutions you may not be able to see alone.

You can also turn your stress into a family bonding opportunity. Families for Depression Awareness has several stress-busting activities for families to try together, like:

  • going for a hike
  • throwing a frisbee around
  • finger painting

You aren’t alone in facing family stress. The Healthy Family Connections podcast, hosted by family therapist Neil D. Brown, discusses solutions for parents, couples, and children in difficult family situations.

You and your family can learn to manage family stress. You might even end up closer.