Whether you’re fighting with your partner about finances “behind closed doors” or constantly yelling at your kids for something they did or didn’t do, parental stress has a trickle-down effect in families and can cause underlying tension in the home, says Johannesburg-based educational psychologist Claire Du Toit. Although Claire works mostly with preschoolers age three and up, she has worked with parents whose toddlers, between the ages of one to three years have also shown symptoms of anxiety due to underlying stress in the home.
Kids pick up on parental stress
“Kids are so intuitive. They’re like little sponges that pick up on everything that’s said and even unsaid,” says Claire. “However, they tend to internalise stress and may act out accordingly. So, if you’re feeling particularly stressed about something, there’s a good chance your little one might throw a few more tantrums or be extra clingy,” she explains.
The effect of antenatal stress
The truth is, there’s no time when parental stress doesn’t affect a child, says author David Code, who wrote the book Kids Pick Up on Everything: How Parental Stress Is Toxic to Kids. It seems to be particularly damaging when stress occurs during pregnancy, and it may affect a child’s developing brain and even his genes.
“If a woman is experiencing significant stress while she’s pregnant, stress hormones like cortisol are crossing the placenta hard and fast. The foetus’s developing brain receives this signal and interprets it to mean that there must be serious stressors in the environment. But, if a child’s developing brain ramps up the stress-response too much, this might play out in a heightened risk for disorders such as ADHD later in life.”
How to manage parental stress better
Although it’s important to show your child love and affection, studies show managing your own stress is the next best thing you can do to be an effective parent. In fact, says neuropsychologist and co-author of The Self-Driven Child, Dr Stixrud, “Parental stress management ranked higher than maintaining a good relationship with a spouse, offering educational opportunities, and trying to ensure a child’s safety.”
Stress is inevitable. Everyone experiences it in varying degrees at some time or another, and it’s often worse when you go through life-altering changes like having a baby, losing a loved one, moving house or changing jobs. So, how can you manage your own stress better so your family isn’t on the receiving end of secondary stress?
Claire has the following tips:
Practise deep breathing
It might sound clichéd, but breathing is one of the most important things you can do when you’re feeling stressed, as it has a physiological effect on the mind and body, says Claire. The good news is, you can teach your little ones to stop and take a few deep breathes with you. Teach them to breathe in slowly, hold for a second and breathe out. This simple exercise has been proven to have incredible stress-relief benefits.
Talk openly to your children
Suppressing feelings is not healthy. In fact, holding stress in for too long can cause a “cherry on the top effect” where you lose your cool over something small. It’s about what you do with those feelings of stress, anger or anxiety that’s important, says Claire.
When you’re feeling tense, try to normalise and verbalise it. If you have slightly older children from age three up, say things like, “Mommy feels stressed, but it’s OK, we all feel stressed sometimes. To help, mommy is going to do star jumps. Can you do them with me?” Keep your conversation simple and age-appropriate, though, warns Claire. Kids don’t need to carry your stress, but they can understand that it’s normal.
Prioritise your own mental and physical health
With our demanding lifestyles, it’s more important than ever to be kind to yourself and prioritise your health and wellbeing. If you’re feeling run down, you’re more likely to feel stressed and lose your temper with your family more often.
To take the edge off, it’s important to sleep as much as possible. This can’t be emphasised enough, says Claire. Sleep has incredibly important benefits for the mind and body, while calming the brain and nervous system down.
Don’t have hours to spend in the gym? That’s OK. Just 20 minutes of moderate exercise a day, where you get your heart rate up and build up a sweat is good enough to release those feel-good endorphins and get the oxygen flowing around your body. If you don’t have a babysitter, exercising with your child is also an option. At-home routines and daily walks in the fresh air are ideal.
It’s also important to fuel your body with the right foods to help keep your energy levels up. Steer clear of refined sugar, processed carbohydrates, sugary drinks and foods high in saturated and trans fats. Instead, drink plenty of water, eat more fruits and veggies, which are packed with antioxidants and fuel your body and brain with low-GI, slow-releasing carbohydrates such as oats and brown rice. Also make sure you eat enough lean proteins to help repair cells and keep you fuller for longer.
Remember, as the parent you’re setting the example for your child. This means your little one should also be sleeping well, eating well and destressing as often as possible. One of the easiest ways to help your child decompress at the end of a busy day is to have a consistent, quiet and peaceful bedtime routine, says Claire. This will help you and your child wind down and sleep better.
Speak to an expert
If you don’t want stress to spread, nip it in the bud by speaking to a professional such as a psychologist or life coach, says Claire. If you don’t want to confide in a stranger, chat to close friends and other parents who can support you and lend a helping hand or simply listen and empathise when you’re feeling overwhelmed.
In terms of your mental wellbeing, Claire suggests letting go of smaller stressors and negative thoughts. Always ask yourself if this thing you’re worrying about will be in issue in five weeks, five months or five years from now. If the answer is “no”, let it go.
The aim is to avoid unnecessary exposure to signals that drag you down. Switch off disturbing media, steer clear of hostile, rude, or judgmental people, consider taking a new route to work if it means avoiding noise, pollution, hassles, hostility, and other stressors.
Planning your days and weekends with back-to-back extra murals and social events can create a lot of stress for parents and kids, says Claire, who sees this problem resurface often in her consultations with parents. “Children need space and time to just ‘be’ and not always ‘do’. They should be allowed to play in the garden, or have free time to do something they love,” she says.