Monday, 8 August 2016

How dealing with your stress makes you a better parent

We've all been there – there's a crisis at work, the phone's ringing, the washing machine has broken down leaving no clean clothes for school tomorrow, and your normally well behaved child decides to see how many cornflakes she can flush down the loo before it blocks.

On another day you might think that was amusing, or be proud that your child has the enquiring mind of a scientific genius, but today it’s all too much. Instead of your usual reasonable and constructive approach, things quickly descend to a shouting match or tears.

Why do our children pick these moments to test us? And why does our patience seem to desert us just when we need it most? The answer to both questions is stress.

How does stress make a difference?

We cope with some stress all the time. Within limits, it can be good for us; we feel energised, motivated to change our lives for the better and to get things done. Past those limits, we begin to buckle under the physical and emotional effects. Understanding these effects, and reducing them, can  be a big step in helping you and your child to get along.

When we feel stressed, we release hormones which cause physical changes in our bodies. You notice them if you are startled, or (for example) driving over the speed limit when a police siren sounds behind you. Your heart beats faster and your breathing speeds up. You may have trouble thinking clearly or finding words, go pale, or notice a tingling sensation. And, although you can’t feel it, your digestive and immune systems power down. This collection of changes evolved thousands of years ago as a survival mechanism and is called ‘the stress response’ (or ‘fight or flight’).

In a primitive environment survival depends on sudden physical action; on running faster than the predators, or fighting better. The stress response developed to get energy quickly to parts of your body that help you do this, at the expense of areas that don’t. 

Nowadays we face different kinds of stress, which are often spread over time. Unfortunately, your hormones can’t tell the difference between a hungry tiger and an angry boss – or a child with a packet of cornflakes and an insatiable curiosity about your drainage system. So, changes that evolved to last just a few moments are prolonged for weeks, months or even years, which has a negative effect on our emotional and physical health.

How does stress affect my kids?

Children under stress may have a strong need for attention and reassurance, or they might release the stress energy as hyperactivity, anger, tantrums or crying. Whether these feelings are shown at home,  at school, or both, it affects their ability to cope and gives you something else to worry about.

We recognise these symptoms for what they are when big changes happen, like a new school or parents getting divorced, but we need to understand that the same problems can arise when it’s just the daily grind that's getting us down. 

How do I break the cycle?

Think of the stress you experience as putting water in a drinking glass. When the glass is around half full you have enough stress to motivate you and make life interesting but you can also have fun, enjoy life and relax. If you add a bit more water, the glass can cope, but add too much and it overflows. That’s your stress threshold and it's when the whole thing becomes too much.

The lower you can keep your day to day stress levels the better, because you have more space before you hit your stress threshold. If you need to learn specific skills such as assertiveness or time management you may need the help of a therapist, but there is plenty you can do to help reduce the wider effects of stress.

  • The healthier you are the easier you can fight off the effects of stress. Eat the healthiest and most varied diet you can afford, reduce or cut out cigarettes and alcohol, get a good night’s sleep.
  • Try to enjoy life the way a child does, and have fun every day. Laughter decreases stress hormones and increases infection-fighting antibodies.  
  • Exercise is a great way to reduce stress; after all, it’s exactly what your body is preparing for. Some stressed people feel tired; if you experience this, or haven’t exercised for a while, you should start slow and build up. But make the effort. Exercise not only uses up the stress hormones naturally it releases endorphins, hormones which makes you feel really good. 
  • Finally, find some time for relaxation. Not ironing in front of the TV, but actual relaxation. Use aromatherapy ‘smellies’ in a long hot bath, learn self hypnosis, or listen to a meditation tape.
  • Don’t let your children be an excuse for not doing these things; use your imagination to combine your needs with the quality time that’s so important to your relationship.
    Put younger ones in the buggy and go for a walk.
    Put the radio on and dance with your toddler.
    Take older ones for an active game in the park, or join a trampoline club together.
    If you can’t find time to yourself for relaxation, there are wonderful meditation tapes for children which you can use together.
The more you involve your children in your stress reduction programme the better. It not only reduces your stress and allows you to be the parent you want to be, but it teaches them valuable coping skills for when they are older and facing exams and stresses of their own.


Author: is a professional stress management coach, and Mum of two girls. Debbie is has also written about helping people with IBS in the Hypnotherapy Handbook which is available from
Find out more about Debbie's services on  or phone 01977 678593

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