5 Ways to Keep Your Stress From Becoming Your Kids' Stress

Stress used to be the domain of older teens aiming for highly ranked colleges. But these days, even the youngest children in my psychology practice are complaining about trouble falling asleep, stomachaches, fears of making mistakes or doing badly on tests.
03/23/2015 11:53am ET | Updated May 23, 2015
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little girl at the table looking a little frustrated at her exercise book.

Stress used to be the domain of older teens aiming for highly ranked colleges. But these days, even the youngest children in my psychology practice are complaining about trouble falling asleep, stomachaches, fears of making mistakes or doing badly on tests and feeling overwhelmed. Matthew, who's 8, told me, "I feel really nervous. Sometimes my heart starts beating really fast." Jenna, who's only 7, said," I could do meltdowns very quickly. I freak out. I scream a lot and I cry, too." It's heartbreaking to hear this anguish from such little children.

Kids today are far more anxious than in the past, partly because students today face much higher expectations for success -- and at earlier ages -- than even their older siblings. Now add to the mix family turmoil, exposure to terrorism and violence, media overload and technology pressures. But the biggest factor, by far, is that adults are more stressed out. A third of women say their stress increased in the past year, half have lain awake at night as a result, and over a quarter say stress made them feel lonely or isolated.

The problem is, stress is highly contagious, especially within families.

No matter how hard you try to hide it, your kids pick up your tension. That's because they're looking to you for clues about whether they can feel safe. So, what are you supposed to do when you're stressed out? You can try to avoid unintentionally burdening your kids with your own issues. Yes, that's easier said than done. It takes loads of self-awareness, self-control and practice. But it's worth the effort; we know that kids who are exposed to extreme or prolonged stress can have physical and mental health problems later on.

The first step is getting to know your hot spots. In my experience, the biggest trigger for parent stress these days is worry about kids' success. Often, this stems from the past. A mom who was anxious about one of her daughters burst into tears as she described her "two superstar nieces who shine in everything." She was seeing her own daughter through the lens of her childhood insecurity due to competitiveness with an exceptional sister.

Another mother told me that she was making her 7-year-old son frantic in the morning by rushing him (e.g., "Let's go!" "You're going to miss the bus!"). She realized that in doing so, she was transferring to him her lifelong fear of being late -- and, therefore, imperfect. Because I grew up with a mother who was frequently hospitalized for medical crises, I had to be extra careful to avoid modeling the catastrophic thinking of my young self whenever my own kids developed fevers, rashes or other symptoms.

Once you've pinpointed your sensitivities, the second step is managing them so they don't spill over into your parenting. Consider these strategies:

1. Face up to stress. Don't think,"Everyone else handles pressure, so why can't I?" Ignoring feelings backfires; stress festers. So take time to take care of yourself. If it's hard to justify, do it for your kids. Just as flight attendants instruct, if you don't put your own oxygen mask on first, you won't be able to help your child through stressful situations.

2. Take a deep breath. Manage stress in the healthiest possible ways. Do what soothes you best, whether that's taking a moment for yourself, luxuriating in a hot bath, or watching mindless TV. If you're calm, you'll think more clearly and solve problems better. Besides, if you're in a frenzy, you'll send your child's stress into the red zone.

3. Retain perspective. Whatever's causing your stress, remember that bad times usually end. If it's your kids who are struggling, making you worried or frustrated, remind yourself that childhood is full of temporary struggles.

4. Talk about pressures. When kids sense something's up but don't know the facts, they usually conjure up worst-case scenarios. Give them age-appropriate explanations (using the few words possible) and reassure them that they're loved and safe. Make your tone of voice and body posture as warm and comforting as your words. Then let kids ask questions and talk about their feelings; research shows that greatly reduces their fear and anxiety about stressful experiences.

5. Get emotional support. There's no shame in asking for help. Connecting with people is one of the most powerful stress-reducers, especially for women. Rely on the wise, nurturing, and trustworthy people in your life who care about you and your kids. Let them help.

When you use these sorts of strategies to manage your own stress, you're modeling healthy coping skills for your kids. You'll know you've taught them well when they can say how they feel, soothe themselves, and come to you for a snuggle. Bonus: Giving them a hug will instantly calm you, too.

Roni Cohen-Sandler, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, author, and speaker/workshop presenter who is frequently interviewed for national media.