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Ask the Experts: Managing Stress

Our Experts

Faina Smith M.Ed., M.S. is Founding Director of Parent411, providing parent workshops and professional trainings. She also serves as a parenting expert to the Boston Children's Museum and a Consultant/Trainer at the MA Children’s Trust Fund. Faina is the mother of two adult daughters and has two grandsons. Michelle Godfrey is the Director of the Center for Families of Cambridge.  Michelle is the mother of two daughters 17 & 2 years old and has worked in family support programs for over 13 years. Peggy Kaufman M.Ed., LICSW is Director of The Center for Early Relationship Support at Jewish Family and Children’s Service of greater Boston. She is also the mother of two adult children and the grandmother of one.

As we know, stress is part of life, and it’s certainly part of a parent’s life.   But how much stress is too much? How does a parent learn to recognize when he/she needs to do something to manage the stress? What are some simple and useful stress management tips?

Faina: All parents have more than their fair share of stress. After all, how can you stop being a parent or escape your child’s tantrums? In fact, we all need stress, and some kinds of stress are positive and keep us energized and motivated when we view certain events as challenges rather than stressors. Research shows that people feel less stressed when they feel some measure of control. Identify things that you can control – when it’s time to go to bed, how you talk to your child, what to cook for dinner, etc – and focus your energy on those areas. Cherish your relationships. Spending time with the people you love will emotionally benefit both you and them. Practice self-talk. Think about how you frame a stressful situation in your own mind. For example, when your baby is fussy, instead of saying “she will never settle down”, think, “she is having a rough day, and needs a little extra love and attention from me.” Ask for help. Parents often don’t realize that someone else, like your teacher’s child, counselor, or pediatrician, may be able to help you and your child. It’s ok to ask someone else for help. Laugh. Kids say the funniest things! Try to enjoy those moments. Exercise. There is nothing better for your body or your brain than exercise. A little goes a long way. Respect your own limits. One mom may love to bake with her children while another can’t stand having her children underfoot in the kitchen. We each have our strengths and limitations, and it’s important to learn to recognize and accept these instead of thinking, “What is wrong with me? Why can’t I be like other parents?”

Michelle: Stress is a part of everyday life and some stress is even good for us.   Knowing the difference is what counts.  Too much stress is when you find yourself more irritable or more anxious than usual and you are unable to work through normal activities or stressors.  Practicing good self care routinely helps to manage some of the stress that parenting can bring.  Taking time out to do things that are good for you and you enjoy is the key.  Find a moment to call a friend just to talk, put that song on that you haven’t heard in a while or try taking a long walk it can help clear your mind.  Sometimes you may just need 5 minutes to re-center yourself.  Sit down in a quiet place, close your eyes and focus on your breathing, lengthening your exhale each time.  It will slow down your breathing and bring more oxygen to the brain which allows us to think more clearly.  Remember you are not alone and that all parents feel stress at some point.

Peggy: Some stress is “good” stress. It is a signal to us to take action, move forward and get a job done.  With multi-tasking being the norm and technology never allowing us to be “off duty”, this can and does lead to “harmful stress.” Some of the signs are increased irritability, agitation, moodiness, forgetfulness, lack of patience, poor judgment and decreased concentration among others.  As busy parents the most effective way to reduce stress is in small baby steps that are manageable. Including our children in the process may be most effective.  It is best to start with awareness.  Say to oneself and/or to the children, “this is a stress reliever.” Here are some ideas:

  • When putting your child in a car seat or strapping them into the car stop for a moment hold them or touch their hand, and pause.
  • Start speaking more slowly
  • Give or receive a 2 minute mini-massage.
  • Read, sing, laugh out loud
  • Hug and hold hands
  • Walk barefoot for a few minutes
  • You can add to this list, and remember, do more than the act, say out loud or to yourself “I am reducing my stress.”

    No parent is perfect, yet sometimes we expect ourselves to be just that! As a result, we can get so focused on our imperfections that we may not recognize the many things we are doing right with our children.  Why is it so important for parents to learn to recognize those things they are doing right? And how can parents learn to do it more often?

    Faina: It’s normal to dwell on the negative and think about the problems we have with our kids and what we could do right the next time. It’s also important to recognize the positive interactions we have with our children and consciously repeat and increase them. Turn negative into positive. Instead of saying “Stop!” or “No!” tell your child what you want him to do. For example, replace “don’t throw your clothes on the floor” with “put your clothes in the hamper”. Accept your child’s feelings. Simply acknowledging and accepting how your child is feeling will help you build a stronger relationship with him. To a child who is upset that his balloon popped, say “I see how upset you are. You really loved that balloon”. Express your own feelings sensitively. We can’t help but get angry sometimes. Learn to recognize the first signs of anger and let your children know how their behavior makes you feel. For example, let them know that “I worked hard to make this dinner. It makes me angry when food is wasted.” When you take a moment to acknowledge your feelings and appreciate what you are doing right, parenting becomes less of a chore and more of a pleasure.

    Michelle: It is important to recognize what we are doing right as parents so that we do not get overwhelmed by the many challenges that come with raising and taking care of children. Recognizing our good parenting moments helps to shape our attitude toward ourselves, and helps children feel secure in our presence. The next time your child does something as small as saying please, thank you or sharing a toy, understand that it is a good parenting moment as much as it is a developmental achievement for your child. Give yourself a well-deserved pat on the back because no moment is too small or insignificant.

    Peggy: Parenting is the most complex experience. We each come to the experience with our own unique history. Our children are born with their own unique characteristics, as well.  In order to focus on recognizing our successes and accomplishments we need to remove words of judgment such as “good” and “right” and notice what is going on with our children and in our relationships. That is what is most important and ultimately most rewarding. Are we noticing growth, change, consistency where there was none? Are our children showing more positive behaviors, including enhanced relationships with others? These are the rewards and the satisfactions and indicators of positive parenting.  We need to notice who they are and what they are doing to affirm ourselves in our parenting role.

    Just as parents benefit from focusing on their strengths and the things they are doing right as parents, children also benefit when parents focus on what they as children are doing right!  How can parents take advantage of those wonderful moments when they can “catch” their children doing something right and why is that such a powerful parenting tool?

    Faina: Praise can be a risky business. Global praise like “You are the best artist in the world!” or “You are so smart!” often backfires, and parents find that their children either become obnoxious or stop doing what they were praised for altogether. According to experts, global praise makes children anxious. They feel that they are being held to standards they can’t maintain. Children who are praised for being smart instead of making a good effort often stop trying when faced with a challenge. The right kind of praise is specific and descriptive. When your child helps you carry groceries from the car, you might say “it takes a lot of strength to carry such a heavy bag. It’s very helpful to Dad to have such a strong helper”. From this, your child will conclude, “I am strong” and “I am a good helper”. Such praise teaches a child to appreciate the unique qualities and abilities that he has. Eventually it will help him realize what he can do and how well he can do it. It may be difficult at first to notice small steps your child is making in the right direction and praise in a way that encourages improvement and self-knowledge, but it is a good place to start.

    Michelle: Given all of the everyday demands placed on parents, finding time to focus solely on our children can be a challenge. Positive reinforcement is a powerful parenting tool and helps to support children’s self-esteem. While you are grocery shopping, cooking dinner or doing laundry, watch for the small moments when your child helps his brother, shares a toy or attempts to help you with shopping.  These are the moments when we can most often “Catch” our children doing something right. Make sure to acknowledge the moment because children want to make their parents proud and want to be noticed for the things they are doing right or well. For example: Instead of saying “good job” you could say “you did a great job helping your brother put away the puzzle”.  Remember that acknowledging positive behaviors lead to more positive behaviors.

    Peggy: Children need to be recognized for who they are and what they do. We all thrive on recognition and positive feedback. Sometimes as parents we hang back and then respond to the more significant achievements. In the interest of our children’s emotional development we want to notice the smaller successes and acknowledge them. Empty praise doesn’t stick.  Concrete statements do stick. “Andre, you looped one lace around the other to get that shoelace going. Good job.” Children also thrive to know that they are appreciated for who they are and not only what they do. “Carolyn, I am so pleased that you chose to come to the supermarket with me today. It is so much fun to share this with you.”  Statements such as these make our children feel known and acknowledged. The rewards for us, as parents, when we affirm and validate our children’s sense of self, are enormous.

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