By Dr. Sandy Gluckman | Contributor
You are a loving, thoughtful, and responsible parent. You totally adore your kids! They are your life! There is nothing you would not do to keep them safe and happy, but life can be chaotic, and it’s no wonder than so many moms and dads are stressed.
Your stress is contagious
The truth about stress that parents often don’t think about is that no matter how well you seem to cope, if you are feeing stressed you will be broadcasting your stress to your kids. You may not be actually saying to them, “I am so stressed,” but whether they are newborns or teens, your kids know when you are stressed. And—get this—when they see your stress and sense your stress, it actually changes their physiology in such a way that they too become stressed.
It is scientifically proven that no matter how hard we pretend to be okay, we cannot hide our stress from our children. One of the most critical responsibilities you have as a parent is to be sure you are not infecting your kids with your stress.
Reducing your stress as a parent is the most loving thing you can ever do for your child.
Every day I see how parents turn themselves inside out doing things that make the kids happy, but they often don’t do the one thing, the most critical thing that could literally change their children’s lives for the better—and that is to find ways to reduce their own stress.
I don’t expect parents to become neurobiologists. I am suggesting though that because we live in a high stress and pressure world, moms and dads need to understand that when you are in stress mode, your children’s neurobiology will also automatically go into stress mode. When your kids instinctively pick up on the tension around your eyes, the tightness around your mouth, your strained body language, your edgy tone of voice, and the harsh words you may unintentionally utter, in that split second their chemistry shifts from healthy to unhealthy. This affects their ability to behave positively, learn easily, and love life.
A quick neurobiology lesson
Your stress sets off an alarm in an area of your child’s brain called the amygdala, which sends out a message to the hypothalamus, which alerts the pituitary, saying, “mom or dad are stressed” and this doesn’t feel good. To deal with this alarm, stress hormones are secreted, and the child’s brain goes into fight or flight. What you see then is a child who displays all kinds of angry or withdrawn behaviors. This child is then at risk for being diagnosed and treated for being defiant or depressed when actually the child is just stressed because mom, dad, caregiver, or teacher is stressed—and their stress is contagious. The only way to prevent this from happening is to learn how to become a stress-less parent.
What can a parent do to reduce their stress so that your child sees you as a calm, centered, and joy-filled person?
Four steps to take today to become a stress-less family
- Remember your child is picking up on your stress. Write at least 3 things you each can and will do to reduce your stress. Discuss and brainstorm what could happen if you don’t make these changes.
- Make a list of what stresses your child. Remember that it may seem silly or trivial to you, but if your child finds something stressful, it is hurting his spirit, body, and brain.
- Brainstorm ways to remove this stress from our child’s life. If it is a school issue then you will need to be your child’s advocate and ensure that you and the school find ways to address this stress. If it is a home issue then you, as Mom and Dad, will need to make lifestyle or relationship changes that will reduce or remove the child’s stress. If your child has irrational or imagined fears then find a skilled functional practitioner that can help you with tools to deal with this.
- Look around your home. Is it a calming place? Are the colors of the walls and furnishings warm, gentle, and calming? Is it organized yet free enough to be safe and relaxing? Is there enough natural light? If not, consider changes that you can make.
Small changes can have a major effect of reducing stress. Remember that your child’s spirit, body, and brain are depending on you to have the courage to do whatever it takes to take the stress away.
Editor’s Note: Dr. Sandy Gluckman is a learning and behavior specialist, working with parents whose tweens and teens have attention, behavior, or mood problems. Her website is www.drsandygluckman.com.