Parenting Conversation: Kids and Stress (How Not to Stress Out Your Kids)
22nd May 2023
When was the last time you watched Paw Patrol’s “Pups chill out”? Probably never. And you probably won’t unless you have a four-year-old that delights in reenacting their favourite pals with great ease and enthusiasm for overcoming life’s challenges. These pups are rarely ‘stressed’, no matter what curveball is thrown their way. They send out a distress call, talk it out, come up with a plan, and work as a team to overcome the non-stop hurdles. In other words, when life throws them lemons, they make lemonade.
For many parents, and mothers especially, the struggle to navigate the pressures of modern-day family life positively is riddled with self-doubt, negativity biases and extreme exhaustion. This can result in chronic stress, ricocheting into the psyche of our own kids. Children are sponges and will literally soak up the happy hormones from a relaxed mother to be, in utero, or absorb the extra cortisol ‘stress hormones’ if she is anxious. According to David Code, author of “Kids Pick Up On Everything: How Parental Stress Is Toxic To Kids”, there is intriguing evidence to suggest kids exposed to excessive cortisol in utero can later develop mood disorders, addiction, and even disorders like ADHD and autism. Moving out of the womb and into the ‘real’ world kids continue to be highly sensitive to their parent’s mood and behaviour, and will struggle with pressures in other areas of their life without a solid emotional support at home.
With teenagers, millions of kids are already on medication for mental health issues before they become adults. According to The Centre for Addition and Mental Health in Ontario, one in five young people reported visiting a mental health professional at least once in 2015, (twice the rate of young people in 1999). This data is from a pool of 10,000 students in North America, up to ten years old. However, we can assume that these numbers are representative of the issue at large and is continuing to grow.
So, what’s going on? Why are our kids getting so stressed? For the most part, the most common stress factors in kids stem from tensions at home, pressures at school, and troublesome life disruptors such as divorce, loss, or new stepparents. For teenagers, as they edge towards ‘real life’ responsibilities, their stress can also come directly from the pressure of getting good grades at school, getting into a good college, and striking a healthy balance between school, extracurricular activities, and jobs. Whilst some experience the right kind of support to help them thrive through these challenges, many kids do not. Instead, they develop extreme fear of failure and unhealthy self-doubt, that can accompany them throughout life.
Many parents are so wrapped up with the day-to-day pressures of getting their children to do this or that (their way), stressed and distracted, that they frequently miss key distress signs from their kids. Kids experience stress differently to adults, they also manifest it differently, and these can be easily dismissed as childish behaviour. Some common tell-tell signs can be seen as increased irritability, anger, mood swings and erratic emotional outbursts. They may struggle more with school, have trouble sleeping, withdraw from others, develop food issues, shirk responsibilities, or feel physically sick. Some kids become more defiant, triggering most parents to react and scold, rather than to listen and hold.
How we parent that is key. When things get difficult, we must be prepared to find the right parenting solutions that best fit the temperament of our kids. After all, we all want things to run smoothly, and enjoy a cooperative harmonious family life. According to Elaine Halligan from The Parent Practice, “The thing with parenting is that no-one prepares you for the pitfalls”. A specialist on positive parenting, Elaine asks parents to understand not only the temperament of their children, but also to be clear on their own parenting style. Are you an authoritarian parent with strict rules and no room for mistakes? Do you set unrealistic expectations? Or are you a permissive parent no boundaries? Perhaps you are a pendulum parent, that swings between both extremes. Most of these parenting styles hold a strong negativity bias, where we focus on what is bad in any situation, rather than all the good things we forget to notice. The ideal scenario to strive towards, in her view, is that of an authoritative parent, who has clear rules and structures, who descriptively praises their kids and validates their emotions. With this approach kids naturally develop healthy self-esteem and confidence as they are set up for success on their way along the path to adulthood.
So, what can we do to help our kids? It’s important to make sure that they are getting enough sleep, exercise, and time to wind down, talk about their problems, or even write them down. Learning not to sweat the small stuff comes with free time and fun activities. They need to learn how to take the pressure off. And what we can really do, not just for them, is take the spotlight off them, and take a good look at ourselves. Everyone comes with their own emotional baggage and hang-ups and particular triggers. We are human after all! The key is to be aware of your limitations, learn your triggers, and plan to manage your stress with some mindfulness thrown in. And if life throws you lemons, make lemonade, or a gin and tonic!
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