Parenting Stress: 10 evidence-based tips for making life better
© 2016 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.
You might try enrolling in parenting classes. Studies indicate that parenting classes can reduce your feelings of anger, guilt, and stress -- particularly if your child has difficult behavior problems (Barlow et al 2014; Furlong et al 2012; Feinberg et al 2014). But the effects usually fade after the classes end -- suggesting that it's the ongoing social connections that matter. Once those are gone, the stress tends to return.
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. Ration your exposure to negative thoughts and negative media.
It's natural to look for patterns. 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
After a very brief exposure to negative emotional content, 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 anxiety and gloom. A single trigger -- an angry comment, an unpleasant reminder, or a distressing anecdote -- might be enough to set the process in motion.
Under certain conditions of crisis, this may be helpful.Switching to threat mode is a good idea when a lion is stalking you. But in other cases, you're much worse off. Overdosing on threatening information and bad news doesn't just spike your immediate stress levels. It can also undermine your ability to think constructively and solve problems. And that hurts everyone -- you, your family, your neighbors, and coworkers.
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
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.
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
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. Use insights from psychology to help your future self
In the comic novels of P. G. Wodehouse, manservant Jeeves always knows what people will need -- even before they do. You can take steps to become your own Jeeves by applying the lessons of modern psychology. How are you going to feel in a future situation? Experiments indicate that people are pretty bad at anticipating their future discomforts. When we're feeling sated, we have trouble grasping how hungry we'll get later -- so we don't plan accordingly. When we're feeling rested, we discount how terrible we'll feel if we don't get enough sleep.
We think we're good at predicting these things, but when researchers compare our predictions to real outcomes, it's clear that we underestimate our future needs. So analyze what goes wrong, and make a deliberate, conscious effort to help out your future self. Are the kids going to fight over that particular game? Then don't bring it with you. Is that difficult relative going to stress you out? Decide ahead of time what you will do about it. Will the noise make you crazy? Bring ear plugs.
4. 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.
5. 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
show that people handle stress better when they reconsider the situation from a
new angle (Troy et al 2010).
example, HIV patients have better quality of life when
they focus on the good things they experience, like improvements in
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.
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.
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).
6. 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
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.
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.
7. 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
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).
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).
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).
For more information about stress and family life, see my article about the effects of parenting stress, as well as these pages.
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Content of "Parenting stress: 10 evidence based tips" last modified 12/2016
Image of monkeys by William Warby / flickr
Image of girl with dog: Nathan Hoskins/US Army
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Image of sleeping boy: Woodley Wonderworks / wikimedia
Image of potter: Sok Chhan / wikimedia