Of all the jobs in the world, parenting must be one of the toughest, most challenging, and most confronting things we can do. Children are hard to understand, and sometimes they feel impossible to control. We regularly feel overwhelmed and incapable of getting it right – especially on those bad days. Just last week I was solo-parenting. My wife was away for a few days with a friend who was grieving the loss of her husband. I had the six kids and was feeling ok until… Sunday morning my three-year-old fed all the fish food to the fish. We had a big container with about a two-year supply. And apparently overfeeding fish can kill them! We have an outside pond and I spent twenty minutes with a kitchen strainer, fishing the food out of the pond in the cold. I walked back into the house and discovered that she had opened the fireplace. I had removed the safety screen to get the fire started when I discovered the fish food issue and forgotten to place the screen back where it belonged. The fire was out and the fireplace was cold. The toddler saw this as a wonderful opportunity to cover the floor with ash, step in it, and run footprints all through the house – on both the floorboards and the carpet! At the same time, someone told me we were out of milk for breakfast, and I was now running late for a commitment. It was like something out of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.
Stress typically comes from a feeling that we are out of control. When we feel pressured or when we feel we have no choices available to us, stress builds up. We feel anger. We experience headaches or stomach churn. We become discouraged and feel helpless. It’s as though there’s nothing we can do to solve the problems we face.
Broaden and Build
When we feel stressed, our thinking becomes rigid and narrow. We can usually only see what’s right in front of us, and only one way of dealing with it. We tend not to notice how rigid and narrow we’ve become, however, because… well, we’ve become rigid and narrow. When we can step back from our stress, observe it, and be “calm” about it, we see more possibilities and perspectives. We feel a reduction in our stress. Our thinking becomes broader, and we build up resources through relationships, clearer thinking, and better health. That’s all fine in theory, of course, but when we’re in the thick of the daily drama, stress happens fast. We don’t step back and breathe. We don’t count to ten. We go into survival mode and start on that rigid, narrow pathway to stressful living.
7 Steps to Stressing Less
The ideas below can help you to manage and deal with stress when it surfaces:
1. Recognise what sets you off
Simply becoming aware of those stressors helps you to avoid them, or plan contingencies. You might know that mornings are a stressful time. By recognising this, you can proactively create new habits to make mornings work better. Organise children’s uniforms, shoes, and lunchboxes before bed. Create a breakfast menu so the children can choose their breakfast ahead of time. Establish a simple checklist for the children to follow. Wake up 15 minutes early to allow yourself more time.
2. Accept that you can’t fix everything
Sometimes that simple acknowledgement can change the game. When we know stress is coming and accept it, we feel calmer. The stress is strangely less stressful. Acceptance is a powerful tool in stress reduction. Remember, too, that sometimes patience is the answer. Children eventually start to use the toilet. Three-year-olds do stop colouring in the leather sofa and the walls with pens. Eventually they develop and mature. You can’t fix some stuff. It simply has to work itself out over time.
3. Find the funny
If we can use humour, we can reduce stress. My friend, Wally, holds special training sessions for his kids when things go wrong at home. As an example, if the lights are left on, he calls the family together to discuss a terrible crime. “Someone has snuck into the house and left the lights on. It was probably an elephant. Let’s go elephant hunting and switch off all the lights as we search the house.” The more ridiculous, the better! This works best when we can step back from the narrow, rigid thinking that accompanies stress and make up something funny – and kind – to get the family working together.
4. Rehearse a reminder
Steve Biddulph says we should always be calmer than our children. That’s easier said than done when stress levels are climbing. I have a reminder that I try to rehearse in tough times: “Calm and kind.” I remind myself that I need to be calm and kind when I want to be highly-strung and horrible! And most of the time it works quite well.
5. Look after yourself
If you’re not getting enough sleep, if you’re using alcohol unhealthily (or other drugs at all), or if you’re not taking care of yourself emotionally, stress will build faster and hurt your family more.
6. Teach when everything is calm
It is tempting to discipline while we are in the moment with our kids. We want to “sort this stuff out now!” But recognising that we can talk later means everyone can calm down and relax a little before dealing with drama. My favourite example of this was told to me by a man who had just bought a new car. His son begged to drive it on a date that night and dad said “ok”. As he left, the boy remembered something he had left in the house so he jumped out of the car and ran to get it. There was a massive crash. He raced to the window with his dad, and saw the car at the bottom of the driveway, smashed into a car parked on the street. He had forgotten to put the handbrake on, and left it in neutral. His father took a deep breath and quietly said, “I guess you’ll need to take the old car tonight.” This dad knew that dealing with the drama in the moment might not be best. He knew his son would feel awful. And he knew that whether they talked about it that night or the next morning would make no difference. So he calmly reduced stress, handed over the keys, and avoided conflict and stress.
7. Get help
If you experience high levels of stress, if you feel out of control, or if anger is overtaking you, help is widely available. When you feel overwhelmed, discouraged, or even suicidal, get help! Go to your GP. Talk to your mum or your best friend. Arrange for someone to help a few hours each week. Just get help. There are dozens of other ways that you can reduce stress for yourself. These might include giving yourself a daily 20 minute vacation by taking a bath, going on a walk, seeing a friend, or reading a book. Therapy and letting go of the past may be options. Scheduling a walk on the beach or a picnic in the park on a Saturday morning might be just what your family needs to de-stress. As with most challenges in life, answers are rarely simple. But stress is not your family’s friend. These steps may be simple starting points to reduce stress and raise resilience.