Is Stress Affecting Your Parenting Abilities?

Parenting is stressful, few can argue that statement. But, could your stress levels be affecting your parenting abilities? What many people don’t realize is that stress can strongly impact your entire family dynamic, especially your parent-child relationship.

It’s important to take care of yourself and reduce stress, otherwise, the effects can affect your parenting ability.

How Does Stress Affect Your Parenting? How Can You Reduce Stress?

Even though you don’t mean for it to happen, your feelings and attitudes affect how the people around you feel.

Studies show that both emotional and behavioral problems in children contribute to chronic high parenting stress levels. And as it turns out, high parenting stress levels affect parenting skills and the parent-child relationship, making it more difficult to address these problems efficiently.

Sounds like a vicious cycle doesn’t it? Let’s look at some ways to reduce stress and end the cycle.

How to Reduce Stress in Moms

What is Stress?

Before we get started, let’s take a look at what stress actually is. Stress is a normal part of life and it can be healthy. Cleveland Clinic describes stress as the body’s reaction (physical, mental, or emotional) to any change that requires an adjustment or response. 

Positive stress is actually called “eustress”. It is short-term, within your own coping abilities, and may even feel exciting or motivation. Negative stress, which is what we’re talking about, is called distress.

Symptoms of Stress

Stress affects us physically, emotionally, cognitively, and behaviorally. There are many symptoms to too much stress, and it affects different people differently. Here are some of the medical signs of stress.

Physical Symptoms of Stress

  • Low energy
  • Stomach pains
  • Gastrointestinal problems. For example, diarrhea, constipation, nausea or gas
  • Headaches
  • Rapid heart rate or even chest pains
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Sore muscles and joints
  • Clammy hands and feet (cold sweats)
  • Ringing ears
  • Shakiness
  • Clenched muscles, for example, clenching of the jaw.
  • Dry mouth

Emotional Symptoms of Stress

  • Becoming easily agitated or frustrated
  • Trouble relaxing
  • Low self-esteem, negative thoughts about yourself
  • Avoiding others
  • Feeling depressed
  • Feeling frequently overwhelmed

Cognitive Symptoms of Stress

  • Racing thoughts
  • Increased anxiety or worrying
  • Forgetfulness
  • Trouble staying organized
  • Poor judgment
  • Trouble focusing
  • Procrastination
  • Little motivation to complete daily responsibilities

Behavioral Symptoms of Stress

  • Nail-biting
  • Fidgeting
  • Pacing
  • Increased or decreased appetite
  • Teeth grinding

Long-Term Effects of Chronic Stress

Stress doesn’t just affect you in the moment, or for a little while. We know that chronic stress in a risk-factor in many health conditions long term, too. This is just another reason why it’s so important to get your stress levels under control.

Some of the long term effects of chronic stress include:

  • Mental health conditions such as depression, and anxiety
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Stroke
  • Acne
  • Psoriasis and eczema
  • Permanent hair loss
  • Stomach ulcers
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
  • Obesity & other eating disorders

Elevated stress levels lead to excess amounts of cortisol in the brain. Studies at Yale University have determined that this can even shrink the size of your brain.

How Stressed Out Are Moms?

How stressed out are moms anyways? I was wondering this because I know I tend to get overwhelmed at times, especially when the kids are challenging and things aren’t working out as planned.

So I decided to do some surveys to see how stressed out other moms feel. Their responses are based on what they perceive their daily stress levels to be.

Here are the results.

I asked two different groups of moms to report how much parenting-related stress they typically experience. One group is parents of neurotypical children only, and the other group is parents of autistic children only.

You can see that 76.7% of moms with autistic children report significant parenting stress, compared to just 31% of moms with neurotypical children.

But what I find alarming, is that regardless of the child’s needs, or the number of children they have, 93% of mothers report being moderately-significantly stressed, on a typical day.

How to Reduce Stress

Reducing stress levels can actually make you a better parent. If you scroll back up and take another look at those stress symptoms, especially the cognitive and emotional symptoms of stress, you’ll notice that many of those are just not compatible with being a great parent.

Of course, being stressed doesn’t make you a bad parent. It’s just that if you aren’t the best version of yourself, you can’t reach your potential as a parent.

So, it’s important to learn how to reduce stress so you can feel better, and be a better parent, too.

1. Create a Stress Journal

A stress journal is where you track situations that make you feel stressed so you can come up with better ways of dealing with those situations. You could keep this in the notes in your phone so it’s always with you, or use a notebook or diary.

Basically, anytime you feel stressed, make a note in your journal describing the situation. Later, when you’re feeling calm and thinking clearly, look back at the items in your stress journal and create a list of ways to handle the situation effectively.

You’re more likely to remain calm and handle situations with better judgment when it’s something you have already thought about and have a repertoire of possible solutions.

2. Do Something For Yourself

As a mom, you probably put yourself last more often than not. I know for me kids come first, taking care of the house, etc. Most of my responsibilities affect other people. For example, cooking dinner is something I need to do for the whole family.

It’s important to take some time to do something only for yourself. Preferably, you should find little ways to treat yourself every single day. But, you should also make time once in a while for doing bigger things for yourself.

How you treat yourself depends on your interests, hobbies, and what makes you happy personally. One thing I make sure to do every day for myself is to sit quietly and drink a coffee without any interruptions. When something happens that interferes with that coffee, it throws my day off and makes it more stressful.

Here are some ideas of things you can do for yourself:

  • Wake up before the kids to drink your coffee
  • Watch your favorite TV show after the kids go to bed
  • Go out and eat your favorite treat alone (Once in a while I like to go get ice cream by myself)
  • Make time for your hobbies even if you need to hire a sitter
  • Spend a few extra minutes alone in the shower
  • Put your headphones in and listen to music while you clean or run errands
  • Buy that thing you saw and fell in love with at the store
  • Go for a massage/facial/manicure
  • Meet up with a friend for coffee (or wine)

3. Exercise to Reduce Stress Hormones

I know it can be hard to get the motivation to exercise in the first place when you’re feeling stressed all the time but finding a way to get moving does reduce stress. Exercise will reduce stress levels even if you don’t like exercise.

Basically, stress leads to the production of cortisol. Some cortisol is a good thing, because your body uses it to regulate blood sugar, metabolism, and reduce inflammation. But when you’re stressed all the time, your body makes cortisol faster than it can use it for those regular processes in the body. Excess cortisol levels start causing those unpleasant symptoms of stress.

Exercise naturally reduces cortisol levels in the body and releases endorphins such as dopamine which boost your mood. You don’t need to go hard at the gym to feel these effects, a short but brisk walk may be all you need to ease your stress levels.

4. Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Progressive muscle relaxation is an exercise you can use to help lower your overall stress levels. It involves tensing and then relaxing your muscles, starting with your feet and working your way up the body.

It works based on the psychological theory that the mind and body are interconnected and as you release tension from your body, you will also release tension from your mind caused by stress.

Time needed: 15 minutes.

How to do progressive muscle relaxation

  1. Get Ready

    Before you begin, get ready by finding a quiet and comfortable space where you can complete the exercise without being interrupted. You can sit or lie down, whichever you prefer. Close your eyes.

  2. Begin by tensing the toes

    Start by tensing the muscles in your toes/feet by tightly squeezing them. Hold the tension for about 5 seconds. Remember to continue breathing steadily during this time.

  3. Release the tension

    After 5 seconds, release the tension in your feet and allow all the muscles to go completely relaxed and loose. Take a couple of breaths and then continue.

  4. Work your way up the body

    Continue to follow the same pattern: tensing for 5 seconds, releasing and relaxing, and begin working your way up the body. After your feet, do this with your calves. From there continue to your thighs, buttocks, stomach, and chest, arms starting with your fists and working up to your shoulders.

  5. Finish with your head

    Lastly, finish off this exercise with face/head. Tense your jaw, eyes, and forehead, then release. Sit or lay there completely

5. DBT Self-Help

DBT, short for dialectical behavior therapy, is a type of cognitive behavior therapy. It’s known to help with interpersonal skills, emotional regulation skills, mindfulness skills, and stress.

You don’t necessarily need to see a therapist once a week for DBT to use the concepts and practices to reduce stress levels. You can use self-assessment tools and find DBT strategies and techniques online to help you practice these skills at home.

You can find 3 self-assessment tools and 10 DBT self-help strategies on Positive Psychology’s website here.

Improving interpersonal skills will positively impact your child’s behavior because it will help you interact with them more positively. The various exercises that are part of DBT help you stay calm, think of solutions and reduce stress levels.

6. Positive Thoughts & Positive Self-Talk

Using positive self-talk and creating your own positive thoughts can help reduce stress by helping you stay optimistic and empathetic. Changing your negative thoughts into more positive ones helps make situations seem less stressful.

For example, if you were out at the park with your child and they started having a tantrum when it was time to leave you might have some negative thoughts such as “every time I do something nice for her, she just acts out, why do I even bother”. It can be a stressful situation, trying to manage your child’s tantrum, make your way to the car, all while strangers are watching you.

If you rephrase your thought to something more positive, like “she has a really hard time transitioning when she’s doing something fun, how can I help her?”, you are immediately going to approach the situation with a different attitude.

Using positive self-talk helps you feel better about yourself. When you feel confident in yourself you are more likely to think rationally and make sound choices – helping you cope with otherwise stressful situations.

You can read about how to use positive self-talk to reduce stress here.

7. Plan, Schedule and Follow a Routine

We all know that routines and consistency are important for our kids – but they’re important for us too! The more consistent your daily routine is the less stressed you will be. When you plan everything ahead of time, you spend less time making decisions and this reduces stress.

If you follow a routine you’re also more likely to eat healthily, sleep better, and make time for self-care. These are all really important component of a happy, stress-free life.

8. Ask for help when you need it

You know how friends and family members will say things like “If you need anything, just let me know” and we say “thank you” and go about our lives doing everything even though we’re utterly overwhelmed?

Stop doing that.

If you’re a stressed-out mom who doesn’t get enough time to herself and is feeling burnt out it is okay to ask for help. So the next time someone offers, go ahead and say “actually yes, could you stay with the kids for an hour while I run some errands”. Or, don’t be afraid to speak up and tell your partner “I’m stressed and I need help … you are on kid duty while I take a long hot bubble bath”

De-Stressing Will Make You a Better Mom

De-stressing really will make you a better mom, just like it also helps you be the best version of yourself.

When you are less stressed you will…

  • Be more patient and understanding
  • Become agitated or frustrated less often
  • Feel happier
  • Feel in control of your life and of challenging situations
  • Have decreased anxiety levels
  • Be able to focus better. Which means you’ll get more done and have more time to enjoy with your kids
  • Have more motivation to get out and have fun
  • Use better judgment, helping you to handle situations more positively
  • Get more sleep
  • Feel healthier and be more energetic

Taking care of you is one of the best things you can do for your kids. Be sure you’re making yourself a priority and practicing self-care.

If you aren’t able to reduce your stress levels on your own, consider asking your family physician for help. He or she will be able to refer you to a professional that can work with you to reduce stress.

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