Parenting Advisor - Reacting to Parenting Stress

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Reacting to Parenting Stress

Being a parent can be the best thing in a world. Loving a child is intense. There is nothing else like the bond between a parent and child.

But parenting can also be stressful. Maybe that is because it is so special. It is hard to be a parent. It is work. Parents can get upset. They can get angry. They can get stuck. Parents might feel like there are no answers.

Parenting can give parents their best moments. It can give them their worst moments. It can bring out their best selves. It can bring out their worst selves.

Parents might make important mistakes when they feel stress. They might do things they will regret. How can parents react when they feel stress?

Studies show that…

Stress is about balance.

  • People feel stress when demands are bigger than resources. People feel they don’t have enough resources to take care of the things facing them.
  • Parents feel stress when they feel they don’t have the ability or resources to care for their children.
  • Or parents feel stress when work or other relationships get in the way. Those things take all the parents’ energy or resources. The parents don’t have anything left to take care of their children.

Parents who feel stress often lose some skills at parenting.

  • Stressed parents might not pay close attention to their children.
  • That means they might not meet the children’s needs very well.
  • Then the children are harder to parent. This is because the parents are not sensitive to the children’s needs.
  • Then the parents have more stress. The children cry more. Or they complain or break the rules. The parents might yell more. Or they might get angry because the children aren’t doing the right things. The children are doing this because their needs are not met. Their needs aren’t met because the parents feel stressed.
  • It can go back and forth between parents and children. It can keep getting worse for the children and the parents. It is a cycle.
  • Sometimes the pattern starts with the parents. Sometimes it starts with the children.

Stressed parents can pass on poor parenting from their own parents.

  • Parents might have decided to change from what their own parents did. They want to do better. And they can do things differently when they are calm.
  • But parents who feel stress often react quickly. They might do the first things that come to mind.
  • The first things that come to mind might be what their own parents did.
  • Maybe their own parents made mistakes. Maybe their own parents abused them.
  • Abuse is more likely to be passed on to the next generation when parents are feeling stressed.

Stress can lead people to react without thinking.

  • The first reaction to stress can focus on survival.
  • The body gets ready for an attack. The heart beats faster. People breathe more quickly. Blood moves to the hands and feet.
  • Energy in the body is ready to run away or fight. Or sometimes people freeze. It is called Fight, Flight, or Freeze.
  • Those responses can help when people are in danger. People can be strong. They can act quickly—or freeze.
  • These responses use the lower parts of the brain. Those parts of the brain can act in times of danger.

Those responses are good when danger is close. They are not as helpful when there is no danger nearby.

  • Those stress reactions can be hard on the body. It is not good to get ready to run or fight when we don’t need to do those things.
  • Fight, flight, and freeze reactions do not help people think. They do not help people solve problems.
  • Those reactions might lead people to do things they will regret. Parents might hurt their children when they are stressed.

Parents can learn to react to stress in healthy ways.

  • After they react, they can start to think.
  • Thinking will also help them avoid stress in the future.

Next steps for parents…

Parents should know their signs of stress.

  • Stress can do many things to parents.
    • Some people grind their teeth.
    • Some parents yell at their children or others.
    • Some feel stress in their necks. Some get headaches.
    • Others feel it in their stomachs. They might eat too much. Or they might stop eating.
    • Some sleep too much. They can’t get out of bed. Others can’t sleep. They stay awake all night.
    • Some want to throw something or hit someone.
  • Stress signs are a warning.
  • It is time to do something!

Breathing is a good first step.

  • Stressed parents might breathe quickly. Fast breathing goes along with fight or flight.
  • Or stressed parents might hold their breath. That goes along with freezing.
  • It helps to take a deep breath and then let it out slowly. Parents can do this several times.
  • Taking deep breaths helps people to relax.

Parents can suggest that the children breathe with them.

  • Maybe the children are stressed, too. Maybe the children are crying or yelling.
  • Parents can just stop and breathe. Maybe the children will breathe with them.
  • Or maybe the parents can say, “Breathe. In, out.”
  • It doesn’t help to yell it. That will just make the children angrier. But parents can suggest breathing. Maybe it will help.

Parents need to take care of themselves and the children.

  • Sometimes parenting is causing the stress.
  • It is good for parents to get away from the children at those times.
  • But first parents need to make sure the children are safe.
  • Maybe another parent or another adult can care for the children.
  • Maybe parents can put babies in a crib or playpen. Older children can play in their rooms. Parents should make sure someone is watching them. Teens can understand that parents need some time apart.
  • Parents should make plans for this ahead of time. It is hard to think of a plan during stressful times.

Parent care plan 1: Calm down.

  • Some parents need time to breathe and relax.
  • They could take a cool or warm shower or bath.
  • Some parents might want to just lie back and use a cool or warm washcloth on their foreheads.
  • Parents could have a cup of tea. It is probably good to drink something without caffeine. That will help them calm down. Both warm or cool drinks might work.
  • Some parents might want to think of words they could say over and over. They might say, “Everything will be all right” or “The world is good” or “Breathe in, breath out” over and over. Or some parents might want to listen to some favorite music that would calm them.

Parent care plan 2: Vent.

  • Some parents have lots of feelings they need to express. Or they have extra energy.
  • They should not express those feelings in front of the children. They can tell the children that they are feeling stressed. But they should not yell or explode where the children can see.
  • They could yell into a pillow or somewhere that no one would hear them. Some parents might need to punch the pillow.
  • Some parents could write a letter and then tear it up. Or some parents might just need to tear up any scrap paper. It might not matter what is written on the paper.
  • They could talk with someone who listens well. Or talk with someone who is good at calming them down
  • Some people need to run or exercise.
  • Parents need to be careful. At times of stress they might say or do things they would regret later. They need to be careful with venting on places like social media. And they need to be careful about tearing up or breaking things they care about. They also need to be careful about tearing up or breaking things that other family members care about. That could just cause more stress later.
  • Parents should focus on feeling better. They should never hurt themselves or anyone else.

Parent care plan 3: Escape.

  • Some people need to escape. That could be a mental escape. Or it could be a physical escape.
  • One kind of mental escape is to read a book or watch a movie.
  • Taking a walk can be a good escape.
  • Some parents can take an escape by going shopping. Others might want to drive around in the car.
  • Parents can create a safe space in their home. Maybe it is in their bedroom. Maybe it is in a corner somewhere. The parents can tell the family it is the parents’ safe space. The children could have safe spaces, too. No one else should bother them there. Then everyone would have a place for an escape.

Parents might want to start with Care plan 1: Calm down.

  • If that works, they might not need the other plans.
  • Other parents might need to start with Care plan 2: Vent. They are too angry or upset. They will not be ready to calm down right away.
  • Parents should think about their needs.

Goals for parents…

Know your signs of stress.

  • How do you know you are stressed?
  • Do you feel stress in you head, your neck, your stomach, or somewhere else?
  • Do you act differently?
  • Do your children tell you that you are stressed? Do your parenting partners tell you?
  • How will you pay attention to the warning signs?

Make a plan.

  • Do not wait until you feel stress. Make some plans now!
  • Plan what you will do to keep your children safe.
  • Where can your children be safe? You might need to be away from them.
  • What places are safe?
  • Which people can help?
  • How can you calm down?
  • What is a good way for you to relax?
  • How can you vent?
  • Who will listen to you? Where can you exercise?
  • How can you escape?
  • How do you like to get away?
  • Where can you make a safe place for yourself in your home?
  • Where can you make safe places for your children in your home?

React to your stress so you can get ready to think! Then you can find ways to stop the stress in the future.

Mom Losing It – Funny Parenting Video — Kids In The House

Cedar, J. (n.d.). Mindful parenting: How to respond instead of react. Motherly. Retrieved from:

Child Development Institute. (n.d.). Stress management for parents. Retrieved from:

Evans, G., & Kim, P. (2013). Childhood poverty, stress, self-regulation, and coping. (Report). Child Development Perspectives, 7(1), 43(6).

Louie, A. D., Cromer, L. D., & Berry, J. O. (2017). Assessing parenting stress: Review of the use and interpretation of the Parental Stress Scale. The Family Journal, 25(4), 359-367.

Niu, H., Liu, L., & Wang, M. (2018). Intergenerational transmission of harsh discipline: The moderating role of parenting stress and parent gender. Child Abuse & Neglect, 79, 1-10.

Pereira, J., Vickers, K., Atkinson, L., Gonzalez, A., Wekerle, C., & Levitan, R. (2012). Parenting stress mediates between maternal maltreatment history and maternal sensitivity in a community sample. Child Abuse & Neglect, 36(5), 433-437.

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