De-stressing your Family

byRona Benhorin, Ph.D.

A common theme that often arises when talking with the parents and children I work and interact with is stress. Parents frequently report feeling exhausted and overwhelmed by parenting, work, and/or home responsibilities, and children often struggle to balance schoolwork, chores, and extracurricular activities. In a society where “keeping up with the Joneses'” often appears to be a goal, we are seeing more and more families struggling to keep up. Longer work hours and increased job demands for parents, as well as higher expectations being placed on children (which often includes waking up at the crack of dawn to get to school on time, participating in multiple extracurricular activities, and spending hours completing homework), are just a few examples of the daily pressures families are coping with. We seem to have created a society in which sayings such as “living in the van,” and “there are not enough hours in the day,” are commonly used, and lack of sleep seems to have become the norm.

Stress affects people of all ages, young and old, and has been found to be related to our emotional, mental, and physical well-being. For example, research supports a relationship between stress and the incidence of heart attack as well as many other physical health related problems. Among other variables, stress has been shown to affect one’s attention span and ability to concentrate and complete tasks. It has also been linked to one’s quality of sleep, mood, frustration tolerance, anxiety level, and general ability to cope with the daily demands of life. For children, stress level has also been found to be related to withdrawal and increase in behavior problems, emotionality (e.g., crying, meltdowns), and/or somatic complaints (e.g., headaches, stomach aches, nausea).

Stress often appears to be contagious. When one family member is stressed out, others in the family are often inevitably affected as well. Below are some tips you and your family may find helpful in beginning the process of de-stressing your family life and achieving a better sense of tranquility in your home.

Follow a daily schedule. A schedule can add structure and consistency to your family’s day and can help you stay on track and increase your productivity level. This does not mean that you must follow a strict daily routine and eliminate flexibility and spontaneity from your life. It does, however, mean adding more predictability and organization to your day, which can help reduce stress. Be sure to plan ahead and to build in extra time for transitioning, mishaps, and unplanned activities, particularly if you have younger children.

Parents who find it difficult to create a more structured schedule for their family, may want to first start by better structuring a part of their day, such as the family’s bedtime or mealtime routine.

Avoid over-scheduling. Having your child participate in extracurricular activities is associated with many advantages. However, don’t over-schedule. Too many children spend the day being shuffled from one activity to another, only to find themselves arriving home late in the evening, still needing to tackle their homework. Children need a mental break to rest, relax, and have fun engaging in unstructured activities. Even when children report that they enjoy all their activities, being overscheduled often takes a toll on them and increases the level of stress they (and you) experience. If your child participates in too many after-school activities that don’t allow for much, or any, “down time,” you may want to discuss this with your child and decide which activity (or activities) should be eliminated from his/her schedule.

Take a closer look at your own schedule. As a parent, you are likely trying to balance multiple responsibilities and feel overscheduled and overwhelmed yourself. Many of the parents I speak with report that they feel like they are being pulled in all directions by the multiple responsibilities they have inside and outside the home. If you feel this way, take a close look at your schedule. Is your current schedule working for you and your family? Are your children complaining that you are spending too much time at work? Are you craving more “down time”? Are you behind at work? If your current schedule is too hectic and unbalanced, see if you can modify it in any way to make it work better. For example, change and/or modify your work hours or try to better separate your family and work life (e.g., turn off your computer and cell phone when you arrive home, schedule one-on-one time with you child). Sometimes even small modifications can make a difference.

Prioritize. There is often not enough time in the day to accomplish everything you may want, or need, to get done. Remember to prioritize and to set up realistic expectations. Having unrealistic expectations will only set you up for failure. Be realistic with regard to how much you and/or your family can accomplish in a day and be sure to mark your accomplishments or progress. This will leave you with a better sense of satisfaction and achievement. It is also important to have a positive outlook on life and to put things in perspective. Teach your child to do the same.

Visual and auditory aides. Use a timer and/or other auditory or visual aides (e.g., agendas, palm pilots, posted schedule) to keep track of time and activities. While parents of young children should be responsible for planning and ensuring that the family follows the schedule, older children can benefit from learning how to keep and use an agenda book to track their own activities and responsibilities. This would foster the development of good time management and organizational skills. A sense of organization and control over one’s day often results in decreased anxiety and stress levels.

Relaxation, fun, and “down time”. Allow for breaks and unstructured activities for both you and your child each day. Having “down time” is crucial for one’s well-being and ability to cope with daily life. Remember to have fun! Be sure to schedule enjoyable, stress-free activities for you and your family. Also, take time to engage in relaxing activities individually and/or as a family. Do yoga, deep breathing, and/or progressive muscle relaxation. Take a walk in nature (or even around the neighborhood!), listen to relaxing music, keep a journal, exercise, and/or make each other laugh (laughter is a natural stress reliever).

It is easy to put your children and job first. However, be sure to also give yourself relaxing, “adult time”, away from your children, to allow yourself time to rest, do things that you enjoy doing, and re-energize. Taking time for yourself will ultimately help you cope better with the daily stressors of life and will make you a better parent. It will also allow you to teach your child, by example, of the importance of taking time for oneself to relax and regroup.

Sleep and Diet. Make sure that you and you family members are eating a well-balanced diet and getting sufficient amount of sleep. A diet lacking in nutritious food, low blood sugar level, and insufficient amount of sleep can all adversely affect one’s mood and result in increased anxiety and stress levels.

Communication. Maintain an open line of communication between family members so that you can better support each other. Organize family meetings or set aside time to check in with each other. Remember to be there for your child, listen to him/her, and be supportive and empathetic. Open communication brings family members closer together and decreases tension.

If you and/or your family experience high levels of stress and/or anxiety that you are struggling to cope with, you may want to consider seeking professional help.