Just Breathe: A Parent’s Guide to De-stressing

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Image by Janko Ferlic via Unsplash

You finish up the second diaper change of the morning and glance at the clock: 8:30. Now you really have to go. You yell up to your four-year-old, “Sammy, grab your backpack, we’re leaving.” You look for a comb in your purse and find wads of scrunched up tissues instead. You sigh, splash water on your hair and run your fingers through it, only to hear wailing coming from upstairs. You march up, ready to grab your daughter and her backpack, but when you reach her room, you stop in your tracks. Your daughter is standing stark naked in the middle of the room with all of her drawers emptied and every single solitary item of clothing covering the floor. She is sobbing. “Today was the day Maya and I were both going to wear our mouse shirts and be twins but I can’t find mine. It’s not fair!

Anybody who has young kids can relate. It seems that the common denominator in parenting these days is stress. A New York Times article explained that with more families in which both parents work, everybody is feeling stretched. “Children are much more likely than not to grow up in a household in which their parents work, and in nearly half of all two-parent families today, both parents work full time, a sharp increase from previous decades.” (Miller, www.nytimes.com/2015/11/05/upshot/stressed-tired-rushed-a-portrait-of-the-modern-family.html?_r=0 ) The number of two parent households where both parents hold full time jobs in the United States is currently at 46%. In 1970 it was 31%, found a Pew Research Center analysis of Current Population survey (http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2015/11/04/raising-kids-and-running-a-household-how-working-parents-share-the-load/). Mothers still do the bulk of the housework and kid-related tasks, contributing to their feeling that they aren’t doing either job well: “You basically just always feel like you’re doing a horrible job at everything,” said Aimée Barnes, a 33-year-old mom and full-time worker. “You’re not spending as much time with your baby as you want, you’re not doing the job you want to be doing at work, you’re not seeing your friends hardly ever.” (Miller)

Systemic issues like the necessity of both parents working full time may be something that individuals feel powerless over. But parents do have some choices about how to prevent and respond to stress, their own and that of their children.

Child psychologist Dr. Tamara Soles of Montreal (http://www.thesecurechild.com/) agrees that today’s parents are exhausted from trying to do it all, and that exhaustion breeds stress.Exhaustion compromises our ability to make sound choices,” she explains, “to respond with patience and empathy, and to be the co-regulator of emotions that our small children need.”

Not only do new parents have to deal with sleep-deprivation, which is stressful enough, but they are also dealing with the crying that is inevitable with infants and babies. By design, a baby’s cry is going to elicit a strong physiological response from us, but that often leaves parents feeling stressed and frazzled.” Soles coaches her clients to learn about the purposes and patterns of crying. Our job isn’t necessarily to stop the crying. Instead, our job is to be responsive and attuned to the baby’s needs. Maybe your child is hungry, tired, frustrated, needing cuddles, or any number of possibilities, but many times we don’t know what it is. When all else fails, it is perfectly okay to lovingly hold our babies and just be with them. The same holds true for toddlers and emotional meltdowns. When we shift our goal from trying to stop the crying and move to a position of supportive witness, our stress goes down and often so does theirs. I’m here with you is a powerful thing for a person of any age to hear.

The concept of simply being with a young person to help them understand and express their strong feelings is not something we’re trained to do. Oftentimes, when a child does something we don’t like, we move into a power struggle/authoritarian mode and start punishing, something that according to Soles causes stress in both parents and children. Our job as parents is to coach our children with loving limits and help them manage their emotions with effective tools,” Soles said. Leaving them alone for a time out, for example, doesn’t provide them with the tools to manage those same big feelings next time.

Soles adds that unrealistic expectations parents often have of their babies and toddlers is another cause of stress. Knowing what behaviours are typical make us far less likely to misinterpret our child as ‘misbehaving’ or ‘manipulative.’ For some new parents this may also mean letting go of what we may have pictured as our ‘ideal’ and focusing instead on what is.’ Whether it’s about your birth plan or your method of sleeping or feeding, there is more than one right way to love a child.”

But it’s difficult to be flexible when we’re stressed. And one of the most painful aspects of stress is watching how it affects everybody around us, including our children. Children are often the barometers of the home, reflecting when stress is high by increasing emotional or behavioural difficulties,” said Soles. Infants and young children will often mirror the physiological signs of stress that they are picking up from a parent: elevated cortisol levels, increased heart rate, etc.Stress can look different in children than in adults. In babies we might see signs like increased crying, clinginess, or fussiness, less engagement with others, or changes to sleep or feeding routines,” said Soles. “In toddlers and young children we might similarly see changes in eating and sleeping, increased tantrums or emotional ‘outbursts,’ aggression, nightmares, separation anxiety, or physical signs such as headaches or stomachaches.

Soles affirms that it’s likely we won’t be parenting at our best when our kids are stressed or when we’re stressed. We are less likely to make good choices, to demonstrate patience, and to model appropriate emotion regulation. The problem is the negative feedback loop that results. When children show more behavioural or emotional challenges as a result of this underlying stress, parents are more likely to respond to them negatively and engage with them in ways that cause the cycle to continue. Prolonged levels of stress affect overall health and brain development and can have many negative effects later in life.

De-structure and un-schedule our kids’ lives

Sound scary? Fortunately, there are many choices we have, and remembering we have them can get easier with practice. The first piece of advice Soles gives is to de-structure and un-schedule our kids’ lives. Sure, music class and early sports team experiences are fun, but Soles explains that “We often lose sight of what children need most: unstructured free play to engage in creative self-expression, discovery, self-directed learning, and emotional processing.

Let go of perfection

The second thing she recommends is to let go of perfection. The “good-enough parent” was a term invented by British psychoanalyst and pediatrician Donald Winnicott and popularized by author Bruno Bettelheim in his 1987 book of the same name. In the preface, Bettelheim explains that Perfection is not within the grasp of ordinary human beings.  Efforts to attain it typically interfere with that lenient response to the imperfections of others, including those of one’s child, which alone make good human relations possible. (https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/freedom-learn/201512/the-good-enough-parent-is-the-best-parent). At the end of the book, Bettelheim goes so far as to say that “The erroneous modern conviction is that problems should not occur and that someone has to be at fault when they do; this causes untold misery within the family unit, aggravating the original difficulty and sometimes even putting the validity of marriage and family into question. Soles adds, “Striving for perfection often takes us away from the here and now and deprives us and our children of finding joy in the present and accepting ourselves and our situation for all that it is.

Ask for help

Soles’ third piece of advice for parents is to stop trying to do it all and to ask for help. Not accepting or asking for help is one way to ensure that stress levels remain high,” she explained. Parents can even expect their young children to help. Soles: “It is so important to establish a structure in a family early on that requires all family members to share responsibilities in their own developmentally capable way. Even toddlers can carry their laundry to the hamper or throw diapers in the garbage. Everyone should be expected to play a role because the family harmony is everyone’s responsibility. Soles adds that these types of tasks should not be tied to an allowance since that sends the message that chores are “extra” rather than what each member of the family does simply to contribute.

These are good strategies to prevent stress. But what about when the inevitable happens and you find yourself tense and breathless, perhaps even yelling?The main thing a parent can do to reduce stress in the household is to model good stress management,” said Soles. “Allow your children to see you take a time-out when you need to calm down. Let them see you take deep breaths or tell yourself to slow down when you find yourself frantic and rushing. Make physical activity a part of your family’s routine, and spend as much time as possible in nature.

Soles’ work with families is based on attachment. “The fundamental purpose of my work is to build connection. My goal is to help parents understand that their relationship with their child is the only truly effective tool they have.” This approach is quite different from many of the tools we find in parenting books, like time-out and reward and punishment. The science of attachment and neurobiology shows very clearly that how we respond to our children’s needs shapes their brain development,” she said. “When we view discipline as teaching or coaching, instead of as reward and punishment, we open the door for more peaceful parenting and a much more peaceful child to parent.”

Recommended by Dr. Soles:

Wonder Weeks is a good book for what is typical and what you can expect: https://www.amazon.ca/Wonder-Weeks-Stimulate-Development-Predictable/dp/9491882007?SubscriptionId=AKIAIKDBGUYHRCAVJHRQ&tag=evolutipare0a-20&linkCode=xm2&camp=2025&creative=165953&creativeASIN=9491882007

Ahaparenting.com is a wonderful website with so many resources run by Dr. Laura Markham. She focuses a lot on how the parent can parent more calmly. Her book is the go-to for me “Peaceful Parent; happy kids” https://www.amazon.ca/Peaceful-Parent-Happy-Kids-Connecting/dp/0399160280

By Gail Marlene Schwartz

Gail Marlene Schwartz is a mother, a runner, and a writer. As Content Curator for JogAlong Stroller, she writes blog articles, video scripts, and ad copy.