One of the key principles of positive parenting is looking after yourself. Being a parent is not all about the kids. Creating a family that you enjoy being a member of means balancing everyone’s needs. And nurturing your own wellbeing as well as your children’s. Stressed-out parents find it much harder to be calm and consistent or to provide the loving warmth and boundaries that children need to thrive.
The problem with stress is that it tends to create a short-circuit in our brains. This means we bypass the thoughtful front regions of the brain and fall back on the more instinctive visceral brain regions that trigger our defensive fight-or-flight reaction. Those fight-or-flight instincts have a very important role in keeping us safe from danger. But, in the face of a screaming toddler or tantruming teen, a fight-or-flight response (though understandable) is not especially helpful.
It is in those testing moments that parents most need to engage their rational brains and understand that this behaviour is not a threat that needs to be fought, it is simply a symptom of immaturity (a.k.a. being a child).
A trigger-happy fight-or-flight response can lead stressed-out parents into behaviours that make parenting more difficult, adding to the cycle of stress and ensuring that nobody’s needs are adequately met:
Stressed-out parents overreact
When we are stressed, our big reactions are easily triggered, sometimes by quite minor events. Stressed-out parents often take things personally. For example, they might assume that their child has done something deliberately to annoy or hurt them (when actually, he was just being a child). This personalising sends our defensive fight-or-flight mechanisms soaring and the response escalates into an overreaction.
What to do? if you are struggling with a particular aspect of your child’s behaviour then find a calm moment in which to reflect on what is going on and come up with a plan to deal with it. You might want to set up some ground rules. Agree the plan with your partner and stick to it. It’s much easier to stay calm in the heat of the moment it you have a plan.
Stressed-out parents are more judgemental
When we are stressed, we tend to see what our children are doing wrong. And we don’t notice all the things they are doing right. Because we are bypassing the rational parts of our brains, we make instant judgements – of our children, our partners and ourselves – and these tend to be negative.
What to do? Focus on catching your children being good. Notice what they are doing well and praise them for it. When you do this, three magical things often happen: 1) you feel more positive about your children, 2) your children do those good things more often (because you noticed them), and 3) your children feel good about themselves. Think about using a reward chart to encourage good behaviour.
Stress damages connection
It’s not a lot of fun being in a relationship with someone who constantly overacts and judges you harshly. Too much stress can damage the quality of a parent-child relationship. Sustaining emotional bonds requires positive attention and trying to understand the other person’s point of view. When parents are easily triggered into overreaction, children either copy this reaction or find less obvious ways to communicate.
What to do? Building a relationship requires effort. Find a way of spending time with your child that you both enjoy. Chat about everything and anything. Be affectionate and build special traditions that make your child feel special. (See Building a good relationship with your child).
We all feel the strain sometimes. Being a parent isn’t easy. And if you are a working parent or add other pressures into the mix, it is hardly surprising that sometimes it all gets on top of us. But don’t let stress build up or become chronic. If you are feeling stressed, do something about it. Find regular slots in your week to unwind and relax and get into the habit of doing something each day just for you.
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