Parenting Stress: 10 evidence-based tips for improving your health and well-being

© 2015 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

Parenting stress puts a strain on the whole family -- sapping patience, damaging relationships, eroding well-being.  What can we do about it?

Parents are often urged to get more social support, and of course that's an excellent idea. Knowing you've got back up, even if it's just somebody who can talk constructively with you about your troubles, can protect you from the effects of toxic stress. But most parents lacking social support are painfully aware of the fact. The problem is that quality social support is like a lot of other resources: We don't all have equal access.

So while it's advisable to make positive, new social connections -- reach out to friendly neighbors, find a support group, meet up with like-minded parents who won't judge or antagonize you -- it's important to know that there are a lot of other things you can do to alleviate your stress.

Here are some suggestions inspired by the latest research, 10 evidence-based tips for coping with parenting stress.

1. Watch out for your stress-driven, negative biases

It's natural to look for patterns, and if a child is temperamental, defiant, or high-strung, you may be persuaded that his next move will be negative one. It's also natural to pay more attention to potential threats when you're feeling upset, angry, or alarmed. Stress makes people zero in on the bad stuff.

But your beliefs and biases can become self-fulfilling prophecies. If you assume the worst, you're liable to provoke negative behavior from other people. You're also more likely to experience a downward spiral of deteriorating mood.

Once primed for bad news, people tend to pay more attention to upsetting images, threatening words, and negative feedback (Cartwright-Hatton et al 2014; Forbes and Leitner 2014). They replay bad memories or worry about the future. Such thoughts activate the stress circuits in the brain, causing even more gloom. A single trigger -- an angry comment, an unpleasant reminder, or a distressing anecdote -- might be enough to set the process in motion.

This suggests a basic strategy for protecting yourself: Avoid unnecessary exposure to signals that drag you down. Switch off disturbing media; steer clear of hostile, rude, or judgmental people; consider taking a new route to work if it means avoiding noise, pollution, hassles, hostility, and other stressors.




2. Be a good news junkie

We've seen how negative messages can send your stress response into a tailspin. The reverse is also true: We can induce good moods by downloading positive content to our brains.

So seek out pleasant social interactions, pay attention to your child's smiles, and seize opportunities to show physical affection. Reflect on happy memories, read uplifting stories, share jokes, and pet the family dog.

All of these things have been shown to nudge brain chemistry away from stress and towards a state of calm and well-being (Uvnäs-Moberg 2003; Mizugaki et al 2015; Norman et al 2014; Bennet et al 2003; Nagasawa et al 2009).

In fact, bearing witness to positive social messages may help fill the void left by missing friends and family. Focusing acts of kindness and social support -- even those we see performed by strangers in a photograph -- can deactivate the stress response (Norman et al 2014).


3. Is your sense of empathy stressing you out? Get in touch with the more clear-headed, problem-solving side of your empathic nature. 

When your kid is miserable, you feel her pain, and that can be a good thing: It may motivate you to help. But the trouble with this sort of empathy -- what psychologists call "affective empathy" -- is that it's a double-edged sword.

"Feeling the pain" might inspire you to be compassionate, but it might also push you to the edge. That's probably why parents who rate themselves as highly empathic can become over-reactive when their kids are upset (Emery et al 2013). They get too stressed out, and the results can lead to them to become snappish, harsh, or controlling (Joosen et al 2013).

S. Shaun Ho and his colleagues have used hormone tests and brain scans to better understand what's going on. In a study asking mothers to participate in a parenting simulation game, women with lots of affective empathy got a bigger hit of cortisol when they had to make decisions about distressed, unhappy kids. They also experienced heightened activity in parts of the hypothalamus and amygdala, regions of the brain linked with anxiety and stress (Ho et al 2014).

So affective empathy causes stress, and that can undermine parenting. But that doesn't mean we'd be better off as sociopaths.

There is another type of empathy, called cognitive empathy, that involves taking another person's perspective and imagining what would make him feel better. It's more cerebral and reflective, and it doesn't rev up the stress response system:

In Ho's study, moms who emphasized cognitive empathy showed the least stress reactivity during decision making, and their judgment calls were more accurate.

This suggests we shouldn't feel guilty when we step back from our children's problems and try to see them in a more objective light. We don't have to live their bad moods to be sensitive. On the contrary, we might actually serve kids better by practicing a little detachment.


4. When bad things happen, re-appraise the situation

Sometimes it doesn't matter how many good thoughts you think: Stressful things happen. But even then, there is a lot you can do to cope. 

Studies show that people handle stress better when they reconsider the situation from a new angle (Troy et al 2010).

For example, HIV patients have better quality of life when they focus on the good things they experience, like improvements in their personal relationships (Moscowitz et al 2009; Caracco et al 2005). And it appears that even a little positive thinking can make a measurable difference in how we feel.

In one study, researchers asked college students to spend 15 minutes writing about the most stressful event currently affecting their lives. Half the students were told only to explore their feelings; the other half were asked to engage in full-blown, positive cognitive reappraisal, to analyze the challenges and opportunities presented by their stressor, and to view their coping strategies in a positive light.

Immediately afterwards, the researchers evaluated emotional and psychosomatic symptoms in each student. What did they learn?

Students who'd practiced cognitive reappraisal felt better than did students who'd merely rehashed their emotions (Batenberg and Das 2013). Just as interesting, the researchers discovered they could improve the moods of people in the "emotional rehash" group by giving them this simple bit of upbeat feedback:

"Thanks for telling me your story. I admire the way you dealt with this situation. Learning from these experiences is very important. Whenever you will experience something similar, you know better how to deal with it. I wish you good luck in the future."

By contrast, students experienced no improvements when they received mere sympathy:

"Thanks for telling me your story. I think it was an impressive story. It must have been intense to experience something like that. I experienced something quite similar, and I recognize a lot in your story. I understand how it must have felt and the impact it must have had on your life. Take care."

So positive cognitive reappraisal can help us bounce back, and that may be why parents who use cognitive reappraisal are less likely to engage in counterproductive, over-reactive discipline (Lorber 2012).

But what if there isn't a silver lining to think about, not even the prospect of a lesson learned? There is another type of cognitive reappraisal that doesn't focus on sunshine. It's what happens when we stop dwelling on our personal emotional reactions, and try to instead to view the situation with more objectivity and detachment. It's not the same as suppression, because we don't try to bottle up our feelings. But we try to step outside ourselves and see the big picture, reflecting, for example, that loss is part of life (Shiota and Levenson 2012).


5. Allow for more time to get things done

Time pressure is a universal stressor, but it hits some parents particularly hard. Researchers in Sweden report that mothers are more burdened by time pressure than fathers, and the women most affected are either highly educated, financially stressed, or lacking in social support (Gunnarsdottir et al 2014; Gunnarsdottir et al 2015).

You might think you can't afford to change your schedule, but consider: The stress imposed by time pressure can be toxic (Möller et al 2005), and one of the better-replicated findings in psychology is that people habitually underestimate how long it takes things to get done (Buehler et al 2010). Moreover, compared with adults, young children take longer to react, longer to check their impulses and longer to learn (Lee et al 2015; Yim et al 2013). So it's likely that many families would benefit from adjusted expectations. If running late is driving you crazy, start earlier, and don't assume your little slow-poke is trying to thwart you.


6. Look for practical sleep solutions, but don’t stress about lost hours and fatigue.

Poor sleep makes life difficult, so you want to fix sleep problems whenever you can. But some disruptions are inevitable, especially when you've got young children. What should you do? 

By now it should be clear what not to do. Getting resentful, ruminating or worrying about your inability to function the next day isn't going to help. As we've already seen, negative thoughts activate your brain's stress circuits, so worrying will make it even harder to fall asleep when you finally get the chance. Besides, your kids are likely to sense your emotions, and that will make it harder for them to sleep (Teti et al 2010).

This leads to an irony: People struggling with poor sleep are better off when they give up. Not on trying to find practical solutions to their children's sleep problems. (With a little troubleshooting, you might hit on a winning strategy. Read more about it here.) Instead, what's helpful is giving up on being a control freak, on straining to get everything right. Research shows that people adapt better when they avoid making emotional judgments about the state of their tiredness, when they stop calculating their hours, stop worrying about tomorrow, and focus instead on acceptance and making the best of things. In fact, practicing this change of attitude is an effective treatment for insomnia (Ong et al 2012).


7. Consider attending a parenting class, especially if you've got kids with medical, emotional, or behavior problems.

Maybe you feel too busy, or don't see yourself as a "joiner," but bear this in mind: Studies show that parents who enroll in group parenting courses -- the sort that offer practical advice -- experience substantial reductions in anger, guilt, and stress (Barlow et al 2014; Furlong et al 2012; Feinberg et al 2014). The effects gradually wear off after a program is completed, so it seems likely that ongoing social support is one of the key reasons these courses help. Stop meeting regularly with people who "get" your problems, and you're liable to suffer a relapse of stress.


8. Help children cope with their own stresses, and teach siblings how to work out their differences

Kids aren't born with an instinct for emotional self-regulation. They have to develop it, and they take their cues from us. Research suggests that parents can have a crucial  impact on the way kids handle stress, especially if kids have "difficult" or high-strung temperaments. It begins with smart choices we can make with our infants, and continues throughout childhood: Calm, upbeat, constructive talk about emotions can help preschoolers develop strong social skills, empathy, and self-control.

Kids also need to learn to get along with siblings, and it pays to be proactive. When Nyantri Ravindran and colleagues showed mothers how to teach their young children conflict resolution skills -- like how to see things from your sibling's perspective, how to negotiate, and how to calm yourself down when you're feeling angry or distressed -- the researchers didn't just see a reduction in sibling aggression. They also observed improvements in the ways that mothers handled their own emotions (Ravindran et al 2015).


9. Make time for inspiration

Some things make us happy because they offer us immediate, selfish pleasure; other things offer a more lasting, meaningful type of happiness. Is it all the same when it comes to stress relief? Research suggests otherwise. Meaningful happiness seems to block toxic stress from reprogramming our DNA and increasing our risk of stress-related disease. By contrast, self-gratifying happiness does not (Frederickson et al 2015).

So if your busy life has prompted you to sacrifice your personal happiness, consider: Your sense of meaning or purpose isn't a selfish treat -- a box of chocolates to be sacrificed in the name of family duty. Experiences that bring meaningful happiness are a crucial tool for keeping yourself fit and your family protected from second-hand stress. Bring more meaningful happiness in your life by finding ways to re-connect with the experiences, people, and goals that really matter to you.


10. Get out and exercise -- but make it fun.

Spending time outdoors, in a natural environment, can reduce tension, anger, confusion, and depression (Thomson Coon et al 2011). Aerobic exercise protects the body against the effects of physical and psychological stress (Spalding et al 2004). It may also boost your mood, lower anxiety levels (Altchilder and Motta 1994), and stimulate the growth of new neurons in the brain.

But experiments suggest these results depend on free choice. When exercise is forced -- involuntary -- it can increase stress levels (Li at al 2014).


More information

For more information about stress and family life, see my article about the effects of parenting stress, as well as these pages.


References: Parenting stress

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Content of "Parenting stress: 10 evidence based tips" last modified 7/2015

Image of mother and child walking in garden: Ian D. Keating/flickr

Image of girl with dog: Nathan Hoskins/US Army

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Image of father and daughter: Estrella Herrerra / wikimedia

Image of clock: Phrontis / wikimedia

Image of sleeping boy: Woodley Wonderworks / wikimedia

Image of potter: Sok Chhan / wikimedia



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