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7 Ways for Parents to Stay Calm, Cool and Connected

Yes, there is a mound of research that shows that emotional support, resilience skills, healthy lifestyle habits, mindfulness and stress management techniques work; not only that, these skills can positively influence the mind-body connection in ways we didn't imagine before.
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"I believe the children are our future.
Teach them well and let them lead the way."

George Benson recorded the first version of The Greatest Love of All in 1977. Whitney Houston topped the charts with her version, released in February 1985 - thirty years ago.

Despite being one of the all-time greatest hits, the message hasn't exactly sunk in. With this week's 2015 Grammy Awards honoring singers and songwriters, what can we say about a top hit's staying power?

The American Psychological Association (APA) has been tracking the issue of stress with an annual report series, Stress in America™. The upshot: We have a stressed out parenting culture. The most recent report, Paying with Our Health, paints an interesting paradox. American adults are reporting less stress today than in 2007. Yet, parents with children under the age of 18 and younger generations are reporting the reverse. Compared to non-parents, parents are more stressed out; especially about money, family responsibilities and housing costs (See full report).

I could have easily been one of these survey respondents. With a teenager in high-school prepping for college and another daughter two years behind, I feel the pain.

What stress symptoms do parents report? Irritability or anger, being nervous or anxious, feeling overwhelmed, losing patience with children, and lying awake at night. Check - all of the above.

Not surprisingly, stressed parents are more likely to have worse lifestyle habits than non-parents. Eating poorly, skipping meals, less physical activity, and a greater likelihood of drinking alcohol and smoking are some of the usual suspects.

Furthermore, about one in four parents say they don't have emotional support. This is especially so for women than men. According to the APA survey, they also feel more depressed. It's a vicious cycle. Other surveys have indicated that the most stressful phases for parents are when children are toddlers and when they are teenagers. But we made a choice way back when, didn't we?

"Everybody searching for a hero.
People need someone to look up to."

Last year a similar APA survey was released on teens and stress, which was more startling and bears repeating. (APA 2014, Stress in America™, Are Teens Adopting Adults' Stress Habits?) It appears our teenagers are experiencing stress at the same level as adults. Where are the heroes?

Many American teens report experiencing stress at unhealthy levels, appear uncertain in their stress management techniques, and experience symptoms of stress in numbers that mirrors adults' experiences (APA, 2014).

Teens are more stressed out during the school year - which is most of the year - and they say their stress levels exceed what they believe to be healthy (see infographic). Yet, teenagers are less aware of the impact of stress on their physical and emotional health or what to do about it. They don't seem to make a mind-body connection, i.e., that lack of sleep, irritability, feeling depressed, headaches, and poor lifestyle habits might be associated with stress.

Only a small number of teens engage in stress management techniques like physical activity. Further, girls seem to be following the stress patterns observed among adult women who consistently report more stress than men. Girls report more consequences of stress than boys, including changes in appetite and diet. Girls also report feeling greater social pressure to be a certain way, find their appearance to be a big source of stress, and are more likely to feel badly when comparing self to others on social media. Of course, it's hard to say whether girls feel more comfortable in reporting stress than boys. If so, we need another way to ask boys about how they experience stress.

But if parents are stressed out, the likelihood is that their kids are, too. Teens are less mature, more likely to engage in trial and error to solve problems, and they don't have a life history to gain some perspective. Is there a sliver lining? Yes, there is a mound of research that shows that emotional support, resilience skills, healthy lifestyle habits, mindfulness and stress management techniques work; not only that, these skills can positively influence the mind-body connection in ways we didn't imagine before.

Here are seven ways for parents to be heroes.

  1. Be Present. Mindfulness is the practice of being in the present moment with a non-judgmental attitude. It's very easy to judge our kids or a situation before even having a conversation with them. Sit tight. Focus on your breathing. Slow down your inner chatter so you can listen and think clearly.

  • Have Faith. Parents are highly influenced by an anxiety ridden, fear-based culture in which we can never do enough or be enough for our kids. Cultivating trust and faith that our children will be okay happens when we believe things will work out.
  • Zoom Out. We may remember that we survived our adolescence (and thank God we did). Being able to stand outside of a situation with your teen and look at the bigger picture allows some space to take in other possibilities and perspectives on a challenging situation.
  • Avoid Competitive Parents. Just as our kids rate and rank, parents do too. Stay clear of parents who compare their kids to yours or anyone else's. You know who I'm talking about.
  • Get Support. Find parents who are empathic and can take the time to listen to your concerns. Find people who might know more than you do and have your family's best interest at heart. We often don't know what it is we don't know about parenting, teenagers or the latest youth trends. Experts can help.
  • Have Fun. Engage with your kids and do things together that are not only fun, but also serve to model healthy lifestyle habits; like physical activity, cooking healthy meals together, relaxing and acknowledging the things that went well in a day.
  • Cultivate Self-Compassion. When it comes down to it, kids absorb the subtle ways parents engage in the world. This includes how you treat and think about yourself. If you want your children to feel worthy of love, you need to feel it first. If any message sticks, let it be this:
  • "Learning to love yourself
    It is the greatest love of all."