As a parent in today’s world, stress is so much a part of our busy lives that it seems unavoidable. We think about how we’ll manage our family's finances, the running around to finish errands, helping with schoolwork, work, etc. There’s also the bigger worry of whether we are making the right decisions about how we are bringing up our children. One thing that I forget to think about, though, is the fact that stress is not just the property of parents. Our kids experience stress and all of the baggage that comes along with it, too.
Recognize the signs. Behavioral and emotional cues are the biggest indicators of stress in children and teens, according to The American Psychological Association. These changes in behavior can include withdrawing from activities that used to be enjoyable, sleeping and/or eating too much or too little, crying, clinging, excessive hostility, and/or a sudden switch to a whole new set of friends. Little kids might not have the words to express the feeling, and teenagers might be unable to sort through all of their feelings to get to the root causes.
When my youngest son is stressed, I know it immediately. He whines, clings, and does his best to avoid going to sleep. His sleeplessness snowballs into impulsiveness at school and sometimes even turns into physical symptoms, like colds. With my teenage son, it’s infinitely harder to tell. His quiet personality goes almost mute with me, but he snaps when his little brother does the smallest thing to annoy him.
Encourage them to talk and listen. Talking helps. It might not solve the problem(s) that causes stress, but it does help our children understand that we care about them enough to listen to what’s going on with them. They need our support more than anything else.
In our monthly family engagement workshops, we routinely refer back to and exchange ideas about how to make the 40 Developmental Assets real in the lives of our families. The very first asset is “Family Support—Family continues to be a consistent provider of love and support for the child’s unique physical and emotional needs.” Having conversations about how to deal with stressful situations and teaching our kids how to manage their responses to stress is essential in providing our children with the support they need.
I am absolutely not above using myself as an example for my sons. I tell them when I feel stressed or scared, which as a parent seems like a risky move. We like to maintain the illusion of control, but my children are experts at spotting the cracks in my facade: they notice when I answer a little too sharply, when I retreat to my bedroom early, when I cry or yell. They know. It makes them more empathetic to other people and kind to themselves when they hear me talk through how I feel, the reasons, and how I will try to get through it. We work together to come up with strategies (e.g., thinking about priorities that really matter, doing things we enjoy, breaking stressful tasks up into smaller chunks, sticking to bed time, etc.).
One of the things we love to do is to shut out the outside world and hibernate. We put on our pajamas early, pop popcorn, make apple cider, and crowd together on the couch and watch our favorite movies (“Back II the Future,” one of the Harry Potter movies, or “Annie”). It was a relaxing idea that we did once before, and now they request it when things get too hard or stressful. What stress management traditions can your family start?
Get support. Some things are bigger than we can handle alone. There is absolutely no shame in getting help from someone else outside of the family, whether that is a trusted friend or family member, a religious leader, a counselor, or someone else. As I mentioned before, stress tends to spiral out and affect other parts of our lives. If the problem is ongoing or connected to a serious life change like a death in the family, a serious loss, parents separating, financial changes, etc., we have to remember that parents cannot do it all by ourselves. It is simply an unrealistic expectation, and the isolation of trying to do it alone only makes the problem of stress worse for everyone.
Remember - you are already connected to a community of people that have your best interests at heart at the East Nashville Hope Exchange. Comment below or email me at email@example.com if ENHE can support you in any way.
Here are some additional links and resources that may be helpful as well: Identifying Signs of Stress in your Children and Teens | Search Institute’s 40 Developmental Assets | Family Stress Relief Guide | TN Mental Health Cooperative (This is free if you have TennCare.)