“I'm stressed, we're rushing, and before I know it, I'm yelling. When I see the look on his face, I feel awful. He was just being a kid. And I was just stressed out.” -- Dana
As every parent learns, you can't be a good mom or dad when you're stressed out, no matter how positive your intentions.
It's true that life during a pandemic is bound to be stressful, for everyone. There's no way around the worries about people you love (or yourself) getting sick, the economic anxiety, the school closings, the uncertainty.
But it's also true that things that stress one person may just roll off the back of another. So stress is partly what happens to us, but at least partly our reaction to it. In other words, we can't control what happens to us, but we can -- at least sometimes -- control our response.
And despite the fact that it's harder than ever right now, each of us does have the responsibility, since we're parents, to manage our own stress. After all, your kids are stressed too, and they're taking their signals from you. Their ability to cope right now depends at least partly on your ability to cope. In tough times, especially, you want your kids to have the best of you -- not what's left of you.
A three pronged approach to stress works best:
- Pare down the stressors in your life.
- Keep your cup full so that you have more internal resources to deal with the curve balls that life inevitably throws at you.
- Re-train your attitude, so you notice as you start to get stressed and can make the choice to shift gears.
Here are ten stress-busting strategies that draw on all three ideas, that you can use starting today, throughout the pandemic, and for the rest of your life.
1. Pay attention to breathing, calmly and deeply, as often as you remember, all day long.
Breathing? Isn't that automatic? Indeed. That's why consciously noticing your may sound simple, but can change your life. Late for an appointment? Breathe. Kids just dump their toys in the toilet? Breathe. Why is this so effective?
- Taking deep breaths so you get more oxygen actually reduces the stress hormones circulating in your body.
- Noticing your breath is like using a pause button. It brings you back into the moment, so you have a choice about how to respond. Do you really want to get hijacked by the stress and end up yelling at your kid, or could you choose a better way to handle things?
- Bringing your conscious awareness to your breath brings you more in touch with your entire body. And your body is where you process emotion, so that helps you to process emotions as they come up, which decreases your stress level.
Put post-its up all over your house and in your car to remind you, and when you see one, take 3 deep breaths. The practice will make your attempts to breathe calmly more effective when you have one of those inevitable stress-inducing moments.
2. Pare down your schedule.
Much of the stress we feel comes from routinely over-scheduling. But that's a choice we make. We think it's helpful to squeeze more in, but it always costs us. Kids thrive on connection, so when we get too busy to just hang out and connect with them, they act out.
Especially given the pressure cooker of a pandemic, this is the time to get clear about what matters most. Prioritize your kids and your relationship. Then drop anything else you can. Your house can stay a mess a little longer. On those overwhelming days, serve scrambled eggs and raw carrots for dinner. Yes, three days in a row if necessary. Your children need you in a good mood much more than they need you to cook.
Sleep is an essential stress buster. Your body uses your sleep time to heal and restore a better biochemical balance. This is hard, because sleep often feels out of our control, especially if young children wake you up. But you can get more sleep, even if it means going to bed when your kids do. Just do it. Even a few days a week of this discipline will ease anxiety (i.e., stress) and lift your mood. (It's also really good for every aspect of your physical health.)
Exercise is the best stress reducer there is, after deep breathing and getting enough sleep. Twenty minutes of sweat inducing activity every day will cut cortisol levels and put you in a good mood. What more incentive do you need? Turn on the music and get your kids dancing with you! (Want more ideas? See our post in this series: Let's Get Physical: 15 Easy Exercise Ideas for Parents and Kids.)
5. Cut your kid -- and yourself -- some slack.
You don't need to stress about every little misstep from your child. The fact that Michael clobbered his sister or Jillian smeared poop on the wall doesn’t mean they’ll be psychopaths. Most childish behavior is developmentally appropriate, and you don't have to be perfect to be a good-enough parent. This is your baby, showing you in the best way he can that he needs your help and understanding. Most acting out can be cured by your reconnecting with your child and getting some real laughter going between you, which heals both your stress. On those days when you're ready to tear your hair out, remember that moment when you first held your child in your arms, and how lucky you felt. You're still that lucky, and you can still feel that way. It's a choice.
6. Postpone anything but love.
What about those times when you do need to intervene to set a limit with your child? Of course! We're parents, so we need to set limits and guide kids, all day every day. But first, remind yourself that it's not an emergency. You don't have to teach your child a lesson this very moment. In fact, all you have to do right now is keep everyone safe and return yourself to Calm. Anything you need to say to your child, you will say better once you're calm and able to re-connect with love. This eliminates the stress of feeling so pressured and powerless in that moment to say the right thing to your child (or, in most cases, to come up with the right threat!) It also prevents saying things you're sorry for later, so it makes you a more effective parent.
7. Give up your perfectionism.
Sure, life is messy, but is that any reason to postpone love and happiness? You're more than enough, just the way you are. There are no perfect people, and there are no perfect parents. Trying to be perfect is a huge source of stress. It tightens a vise around your heart. Loving yourself unconditionally – really feeling acceptance and love for YOURSELF, even though you aren't perfect – may be the single most important thing you can do to help your child thrive, because you can only give what you have inside. Practice positive self-talk. Find ways to nurture yourself. If you simply must evaluate yourself as a parent, never judge yourself by your child's behavior, but by your reaction to it. Does unconditional love sound like too much of a stretch? Take it day by day. Only love today.
8. Count your blessings and cultivate optimism.
Every time you start to feel negative, find as many things as you can to be grateful for, and really feel that gratitude. Research shows that this practice reduces stress and improves health and happiness. If you talk about it as you do it, your kids will learn from your role modeling. Why not start a gratitude practice every evening at the dinner table?
9. Find support.
Parenting is the hardest job there is. We ALL need support to parent well. If you need more of that kind of support in your life, listen to parenting audios that soothe and inspire you. Find other parents to whom you can vent, who won't judge you or try to fix you. Find yourself a parenting coach with whom you can check in occasionally. Even the simple act of writing in a journal -- which develops your "observing ego" -- has been proven to be an effective way of supporting ourselves to grow and coming to peace with things that bother us.
10. Find spirit in your life.
This can mean a higher power, but it doesn't have to. Just step away from the distractions and find the quiet that inspires you to connect with your deepest wisdom. For some of us, it’s as simple as a walk in the woods or gazing at the stars. Your kids benefit from quiet time in nature too. We all need to reconnect regularly with the miracles that make life worth living.
This is post #2 in our series on self care: The Secret of the Full Cup.
The full series: