When you're tense, your kids feel it too. How to ease the pressure for everyone.
By Jessica Snyder Sachs, as first appeared in Parenting magazine
Like most moms, I wonder how my stress affects my child. On weekday mornings, though, I have an exquisite barometer at my fingertips: my daughter's hand as we walk down the sidewalk to her school. I'm amazed at how powerfully those small fingers can squeeze mine on the days I'm feeling the most harried and rushed.
She knows when I'm tense.
To psychologists, it goes by the name of "stress contagion" -- the tendency of one person's tension to spread to those nearby. It's a phenomenon that's particularly evident in families. And children are most susceptible to its effects.
"Kids instinctively look to their parents to gauge whether all is right with the world," says Mark Sossin, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at Pace University in New York City. And they have an uncanny ability to know when all is not right, even when we try to hide it.
"Parents who, with all the best intentions, try to protect their children from their financial, marital, or work stresses nonetheless convey their anxieties nonverbally, in a powerful way," he says. Their kids see it in the furrowed brow and tensed shoulders, hear it in the too-loud tone of voice, and sense it in the distracted or irritable responses to their appeals for attention.
If it's occasional, that's fine. No one ever said that to be a good mom you have to be in a good mood all the time. It's all right for your child to see you sad, worried, even angry. But chronic tension at home can have a lasting impact. In one recent study of 326 families in Seattle, mothers who were anxious or depressed were twice as likely as other moms to take their children to the pediatrician with stomachaches -- often when nothing was wrong. "If you establish a very stressful environment, you are increasing the chance that your child will develop an anxious disposition," says pediatric psychologist Jonathan Pochyly, Ph.D., of Chicago's Children's Memorial Hospital.
Knowing how your tension can affect your child might be the best incentive for addressing your own needs for rest, for relaxation, for rejuvenation. Here, common stress scenarios, and how some families have found a better way:
The Rushed Parent
"We used to have such a cramming mentality," says Laurie Kirkegaard of Atlanta. "We'd squeeze as much as we could into the week -- and then still have lots to do during the weekends."
Both she and her husband, Jim, are self-employed consultants who work at home, and they'd find themselves continually juggling the needs of their clients with those of 5-year-old Ethan and Allie, age 3. The backlog of household chores kept growing, and chronic late-night bedtimes left everyone ragged the next day.
For the Kirkegaards, the signal to change came from Ethan, who began to have discipline problems at school -- everyday stuff like acting rowdy and not paying attention to the teacher. His mom and dad started to wonder whether their overbusy lives were part of the problem. So they sought out Atlanta-based parenting counselor Bob Lancer, author of Parenting With Love: Without Anger or Stress. He agreed that their supercharged pace was a concern.
"If you're living life in a rush," says Lancer, "you start blaming your child for not behaving, when what's really going on is that the constant overload incites his acts of rebellion, making normal behavior challenges more difficult to deal with."
stress remedy To move toward their new goals, the Kirkegaards became more selective in the clients they accepted ("lower-maintenance types," says Laurie), and that allowed more time for the family.
They established a firmer weekday routine for each child, cutting back on scheduled activities to one per child each week. Ethan, for example, dropped karate but kept his "ball camp" class. They started to have more regular weekday mealtimes. And on the weekends, which were much freer, they made a conscious effort to focus on their kids. They identified and eliminated several small daily stressors, too, like the habit of getting into intense work-related discussions around the kids. They closed the doors to the home offices when they were working so the kids couldn't just wander in.
Even cleaning up helped: Boxing extra toys and papers reduced the kind of household clutter that irritated Laurie, and also made it a lot easier to find shoes and jackets when the family was in a hurry to get out the door in the morning.
Would similar solutions work for your family? Each one is different -- some can handle more busyness and activities than others -- so in the end it's a personal decision. If your family feels stressed, it is, say experts -- and reassessing your priorities may lead to more satisfaction and family peace. As a first step, try thinning your schedule until there's more time to move through each of your daily tasks without rushing -- and some downtime for rejuvenation.
The Child-Frazzled Mom
"Our life is so loud right now!" says Amy Lester of Amarillo, Texas. Her son, Jake, is 6; her daughter, Darby, is 3. "When I've got both of them pulling at me -- Jake wanting to help with everything, Darby crying -- the chaos can really wear me out."
Playdates are the worst. "I like that my kids' friends come here to play, but sometimes I notice that my patience isn't keeping up." She knows she's near the edge when she hears the volume and pitch of her own voice rising, or she finds herself snapping over such "trivial" matters as a spilled drink. "Normally, these things would never bother me," she says.
Sommer Martorano of Boynton Beach, Florida, often finds herself frayed as she spends the day chasing after her turbocharged son, Nicolas, 2, undoing his random acts of toddlerhood. "I'll try to straighten up, and, as I turn around, I'll see him taking out everything I just put away."
stress remedy Parents need time-outs too. Even the smallest reprieve can give you a chance to catch your emotional breath. Lester plays "spider solitaire" on the computer to escape -- and recharge -- in the midst of chaos. "Although the computer's in the kitchen, I tune out while my husband takes charge of the kids for fifteen minutes. That silly little game works wonders."
For toddler-chasing Martorano, a solitary jog or a drive after dinner while her husband, Louis, plays with Nicolas is often the answer. When she's in the car, she says, "I just go to the pharmacy down the street. Maybe I'll buy a lipstick or something else that's small but just for me. Then when I drive home, I'll be singing along with the music on the radio, and I'm ready to take on another day!"
Looking forward to an adult playdate helps too. Knowing that she and her husband have a babysitter on Saturday nights helps keep Martorano calm in the midst of bedlam. "I tell myself, 'Saturday, we'll be sitting down in a restaurant!'"
To know that you need a break, though, the first step is simply recognizing when you're tense, says Robert Friedman, a psychotherapist in Queens, New York, who specializes in stress management. "Work on developing a body awareness of the places where stress affects you," he says. "Do you get indigestion or a stomachache, or a backache or a headache? Whatever your personal symptom, let it be your signal to take measures to short-circuit the stress response." Whatever works for you -- deep breathing, tightening muscles and then releasing them, imagining that you're in a beautiful vacation spot -- now's the time to use it.
The Preoccupied Parent
When Helen Mitchell of Marietta, Georgia, picked up her son, Tyler, 9, from school, her mind was often still swimming with the day's undone tasks. "When I was most preoccupied, that's when Tyler started asking the weirdest questions," she says. "Like 'Mom, what color is the sky?'" My first reaction was to get angry. I mean, he knows full well what color the sky is!"
But nonsensical questions may just be a way for a child to reach out to a mom who seems harried. So can being cranky, loud, or demanding. "Now I know it's just his way of trying to get my mind off whatever's bothering me -- he sees it on my face," she says.
stress remedy When Mitchell realized, gradually, that being so preoccupied wasn't good for her son -- that he really needed her full attention -- she started to make a habit of "settling myself down" before picking him up. She'll take an hour to lift weights or do yoga at her gym, or at least listen to some relaxing light jazz or uplifting gospel as she waits in the carpool line. "By the time I ask him about his day, I'm really listening," she says.
Chelle Daly of Chandler, Arizona, has a different trick to let go of mental distractions so she can focus on daughter Audrey, 3, and 20-month-old son Kelden. "I pretend someone I admire is nearby," she says, "and I want that person to feel proud of me." In the process, she forgets about whatever was bothering her and more fully enjoys her children.
Even something as simple as taking a deep breath can help you release whatever is worrying you, says Friedman. He recommends leaving notes to yourself in crucial places -- the car dashboard, the kitchen counter, the baby-changing table -- that say simple things like "Breathe" or "Be here now," to remind yourself to focus on the moment and not on everything else you need to do. As you exhale, he adds, visualize the tension leaving with your breath.
The Anxious Parent
I'll own up to this one. While momhood forced me to slow down (a bit), it opened my mind to a whole new cosmos of fears. As a new mom, I fretted over developmental delays in our otherwise healthy daughter. Now that Eva's in school, I worry about whether she's making friends, being encouraged, feeling good about herself. Of course, I try not to express my concerns, in so many words, to her.
"You don't have to," says Friedman. "While some parents consciously put stress on their children -- for example, by demanding that they do well all the time -- others do so without being conscious of it at all." So maybe it shouldn't be a surprise that when I'm standing in the doorway, anxiously watching Eva, now 13, walk to a friend's house alone, I see her jump at the sound of a car motor. The result, says Friedman, can be a cycle in which the concerns of parent and child feed off one another.
stress remedy It helps to keep in mind that anxiety doesn't solve problems. But to break the worrying habit, many of us need repeated reminders to let go. First, pay close attention to your body's signals: Is your jaw clenched, are your shoulders up to your ears, is your breath short and shallow? If so, take a moment to breathe deeply and relax so you can begin to shift mental gears.
When he's working with truly hard-core worriers, Friedman may prescribe negative reinforcement: Put a rubber band on your wrist and give it a gentle snap whenever you catch yourself fretting. (It works, but let me tell you from personal experience: A deep breath is a lot more enjoyable.)
I've also found it helps to admit to my daughter that my anxieties tend to be over the top. When we can both laugh at them, that's even better.
Whatever your family scenario, there's no avoiding the fact that every solution to hand-me-down stress comes back to your need, as a parent, to take care of yourself. That may mean prioritizing to make time for yourself, or working to let go of worries, or laughing at them.
We all want what's best for our children. We'll sacrifice if need be. But sometimes, the best way to get there is through our own happiness.
Parenting contributing editor Jessica Snyder Sachs is the author of Good Germs, Bad Germs: Health & Survival in a Bacterial World (Hill&Wang/FSG) and Corpse: Nature, Forensics, and the Struggle to Pinpoint Time of Death (Perseus/Basic Books).