Parenting: Stress-Full Or Stress-Free?

Use these helpful tips to keep a level head as you navigate through the experience of parenting.
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We’re reminded of it at every doctor’s visit: Our vital signs ― our heartbeat, breathing rate, temperature, and blood pressure ― are the measures of our body’s functions. If you’re healthy, your pulse rate is 60-100 beats per minute; you take about 12-18 breaths per minute; your blood pressure ranges from 90/60 mm Hg to 120/80 mm Hg, and your temperature is between 97.8 degrees F to 99.1 degrees F. As long as you stay within these ranges, all is apparently well.

When we have outbursts of anger or stress and anxiety, however, our sympathetic nervous system is alerted and the adrenaline that is pumped into our bloodstream provides a burst of energy and other physiological changes: Our heart beats goes up, our pulse rate and blood pressure rises, and we start breathing faster and heavier. Repeated patterns of these changes reflect “chronic” stress—the biggest contributor to mental and physical ill health.

So here’s a question for parents: How often do you have outbursts of anger or stress with your kids? Two, three, four times a day or more? Okay, calm, mindful parents might drop those numbers a few notches. But how often do you complain every day ― out loud or in your head? All the time, right? This is all part of the parental communication landscape! When it comes to our kids, we are either yelling, getting angry, stressed out, or at the very least, complaining.

The exact number of stresses doesn’t matter. What counts is what you can do about them. Here are some time-tested, science-supported strategies for lowering your stress:

1. Take a trip inward, and get familiar with what your “normal” vital signs feel like. It’s best if you start when your kids are not around. Sit in silence for a few minutes and pay attention to your thoughts and feelings, and especially to the gaps of silence in between your thoughts and feelings. Feel the effect of the silence in your body, breath, and heart rate. This is the foundation of meditation.

If your mind continues to race, follow your breath. Your mind will drift. Bring it back to your breath. Research has shown that, like meditating and breathing, even deep sighing can help ease stress. The more you practice it, the better acquainted you will be with what your “normal” vital signs are like, and the better you will become at dialing into that state when you are anxious, stressed, angry, complaining, or frustrated. Being mindful as such simply starts with getting familiar with your optimal healthy vitals.

For most people, thoughts dissipate more quickly than feelings. So...

2. Build your emotional vocabulary. In my book, The “Perfect” Parent, I advocate a tool called Dealing with the Feeling. The steps are: Spot it. Say it. Okay it. Start by spotting what you’re feeling—anger, frustration, fear, guilt, doubt, worry. Say the feeling out loud or in your inner voice: I am feeling angry. Then okay it; validate the feeling. When we validate our feelings, we accept them as they are instead of fighting them. It is the resistance to accepting our feelings that causes stress and anxiety. Also keep in mind that there is energy created with every emotion. Give yourself some time to…

3. Sit with your feelings and allow them to dissipate. Your goal is to allow this energy to lose its hold on you. Think how anger or stress makes our stomach turn or tightens our neck muscles. Like a seasoned surfer, ride the wave of this energy until you feel it has worked its way through your body—both internally and externally. There’s nothing much to be done here except just observing the energy lose its momentum. Even though it sounds easy, it can be a little unconfotable. We are not used to taking the time to release the energy behind our feelings. This is why many of our behaviors are repetitive. The more we learn to sit with and release the energy behind current and past emotions as they are created or as they surface, the easier it is to flush them out of our system. Don’t be afraid to…

4. Look through your growth lens. Asking simple questions like “What am I learning from this emotion or experience” is a huge detangler of past experiences and conditioned internal states. When we answer such self-reflective questions, we slowly reveal what is in our subconscious from decades ago that has stunted our growth. This is true especially for reactions that we have to our children’s repeated behaviors. Don’t think for a second that we take this parenting journey only to help our children grow. Our children cannot move forward in their growth if we don’t grow at the same time. And, please, don’t take life so seriously…

5. Find the funny in life’s moments. Humor is a huge stress buster! Dip into your sense of humor often enough so that it is your constant companion. If you’ve lost it somewhere, or don’t seem to have one, that’s because, like the extra tire of a car, we have it tucked away in our trunk. Hop online and recover your sense of humor with videos, jokes, whatever you can get your hands on. Soak it all in. If all else fails, go to a comedy club, rent a funny movie or buy a silly joke book! Whatever you do, be sure to share it out loud with those around you—your friends, your family, and your kids! Laughter is contagious. Our kids are great teachers of this.

These easy practices will help rewire your brain and recreate new pathways so you can minimize stress and start enjoying the parenting ride. We can’t wait for our kids to leave our home to finally relax, right? As a mother of adult children who have flown the nest, I promise you, that doesn’t happen. If you’re stressed out with your kids now, you’ll have created enough brain pathways to remain stressed for the rest of your life. And then what? As salesman/philosopher Elbert Hubbard said, “Do not take life too seriously. You will never get out of it alive.”

It is never a challenge that causes us stress, it is our reaction to it. Parenting will never be completely stress-free, but it doesn’t need to be full of stress. We can use tools to create habits that free us from the tangles of stress. The choice is ours.

Read more from Tools of Growth.