As soon as you become a parent, one thing becomes abundantly clear: Raising kids ain’t easy! Managing finances, work-life balance and child care, not to mention unreasonable societal expectations, can put a lot of stress on a parent — and the past two years of parenting during a pandemic have only exacerbated the pressure.
While a little bit of stress can motivate, toxic levels of stress are damaging, manifesting itself in a number of physical, mental or emotional ways. Red flags that stress may have reached excessive levels include memory problems, lack of concentration, excessive worry, feelings of hopelessness, irritability, not being able to calm your body, sleeplessness, frequent illness, developing nervous habits, and increased use of alcohol or drugs. Out of control stress can eventually affect your family, as well, resulting in yelling, shaming, embarrassing or being physically aggressive with your children, says Michelle Gambs, parent coach, psychotherapist, and author of the book Stay Away from Option D. That’s when you know you’re too far out.
If you’ve found yourself overwhelmed by stress as a parent, you’re not alone—this stuff is hard! But all hope is not lost. Here are some tips for coping and bringing joy back into your family life.
Parental guilt is in no short supply the moment your child enters the world, Gambs says. We can easily buy into the idea that we need to be everything for our children at all moments of the day, but the reality is that it just isn’t possible. While being fully present for your kids (i.e., spending quality time with them) is necessary for a healthy family dynamic, the quantity of time will vary as you balance your other relationships and responsibilities.
A great way to manage the boundaries you need for your kids, yourself, your partner and your work is to schedule specific times for those things, she says. Have a strategy session with your partner to sort out your priorities and slot them on the calendar. You can also invite your children into the discussion with occasional or regular family meetings.
Fill Your Tank
The first thing to slot on your calendar is time for self care, even if it’s just for 5 minutes a day. “You can’t expect yourself to function like a machine without putting anything in the tank,” Gambs says. Find something that resonates with you that doesn’t involve your work, relationship or kids, she recommends. Maybe go for a run, listen to calming music, have a dance party, do yoga, or get out in nature. It doesn’t matter what it is as long as it prioritizes you and gives you energy that you can then put toward the other things in your life.
Make Time for Reflection
Along with self care, schedule regular time to unplug from social media and electronics and pause for reflection. Listen to what your body is telling you and become aware of how it feels when you are relaxed or when you are triggered. Journaling or meditation apps, such as Insight Timer, are helpful tools to recognize triggers, the sensations you experience in your body, and the time of day you experience them.
Utilize Your Support System
Talking out your stress with someone you trust, like a trusted family member or friend who can listen without judgment, can help relieve pent-up feelings and help let go of the story you’re telling yourself about the stressor. Plus, if you’re parenting with a partner, you have the additional benefit of tag-teaming stressful situations.
“The gift of having a partner is that you can pass the baton,” Gambs says. “Typically, one of us is more resourced in each moment. When you recognize that you’re going to lose it, have the wherewithal to detach and allow the other partner to enter into the arena.”
Seek Professional Help
If you need additional support outside of your natural support system, there are numerous resources available to help families thrive, including support groups, parent coaches and family therapists. If you find yourself needing emergency help, local mental health agencies have crisis lines that offer support 24 hours per day.
Keep in mind that seeking help for mental health support is often a journey, so Gambs recommends to start searching out therapists when you first start noticing red flags. “Make sure that you feel connected and that you trust this person,” she says. “Keep moving until you do feel that. If your intuition isn’t feeling it, keep going.”
Once you begin putting these strategies into place, you will begin to notice a change in the way you cope with everyday situations and connect with your children. Over time more joy will seep back into your household and you’ll begin to feel those connections with your children you desire.