6 Strategies to Help You Stress Less as a Parent
Parenting is full of emotional ups and downs. One minute you may be bursting with pride and joy over your child. The next, you may feel paralyzed with worry. You may also question your parenting abilities and decisions, especially when the kids you love so much challenge them.
This range of emotions can start right away, cropping up as early as during pregnancy and persisting well into the teen years, and even beyond. Generally speaking, it’s common to feel parental anxiety from time to time. “It's built into the job description,” says Debra Kissen, Ph.D., a Chicago-based therapist and co-chair of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America’s public education committee and co-author of Overcoming Parental Anxiety: Rewire Your Brain to Worry Less and Enjoy Parenting More.
The thing is: Worry doesn’t solve problems and can wreak havoc on your mental health and happiness.
Try these strategies to help you stress less and enjoy parenting more.
1. Learn to Manage Your Thoughts
The next time parental worry strikes, remember that the first thought you may have about a situation with your child is rarely your best thought, and it likely isn’t factual. “The first thought we can't control—it just pops into our head,” says Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist based in Princeton, New Jersey and the author of Kid Confidence: Help Your Child Make Friends, Build Resilience, and Develop Real Self-Esteem.
Common first thoughts relate to the “what ifs,” adds Kennedy-Moore and include things like:
- What if my child never eats fruits and vegetables?
- What if my child is bullied at their new school?
- What if my child’s symptoms are a serious medical condition?
“But we have a lot of control over the second thought,” adds Kennedy-Moore. That means consciously using your second thought to reframe your “what ifs” into something more productive. You can use these thoughts to remind yourself that a worry may not ever come to fruition—and, even if it does, you’ll deal with it then, adds Kennedy-Moore.
This is considered a type of mindfulness. “It’s about training your brain to get stronger at noticing when thoughts are showing up that are more noisy,” says Kissen. “It doesn't mean [your worry] isn’t going to happen. It just means it's not necessarily applicable for the current moment, and you're not really solving an actual problem by sitting there and worrying about it.”
Practicing mindfulness is like training the mind as a muscle, the same way you would train other parts of your body at a gym: by working on it repeatedly. As a result, keeping your brain focused on the present moment can, over time, train your brain to handle these types of stressors better.
2. Accept Uncertainty
Uncertainty is a fact of life. “Anxiety wants us to have a guarantee that everything is going to turn out well,” notes Kennedy-Moore. “But we don't know that it will.”
When it comes to parenting, there’s so much you can’t control. Your baby might get sick. Your child’s school bus might get stuck in traffic and make them late. Your teen might not get into their top-choice college. Instead of being paralyzed by your worries, accepting the uncertainty helps to free you from it and allows you to move forward.
3. Be in the Present Moment
A good rule of thumb? The more time you spend engaging with your child, the less time you’ll have to spend worrying, says Kissen.
So if you feel yourself worrying, refocus your energy on taking a walk or playing a game together instead.
“We can’t be mindfully engaging [with a child] and engaged in worry at the same time,” explains Kissen. “So just keep kind of gently reminding yourself, ‘I can't guarantee what is going to happen, but, what can I have now with my child?’”
4. Use Your Energy Wisely
Children require time and energy, and the time we spend worrying is a waste of both.“Try to focus not on preventing bad outcomes, but on equipping your kids for their journey and trusting in their strength,” says Kennedy-Moore.
For example, when we see our kids struggle, we tend to want to jump in and fix it. “But when we take care of a problem that our kids could handle on their own, we're stealing their opportunity to develop coping strategies,” explains Kennedy-Moore.
Next time, instead of coming to the rescue, try to guide your child through a problem by focusing on the skills they’re going to need to address similar issues in the future. “If a kid is struggling with math, we don't say, ‘Four! The answer is four!’” says Kennedy-Moore. “We say, ‘Is this an addition or a subtraction problem? Let's read the problem carefully.’ We break it down for them so that they can figure it out. And that really is a useful way of helping them cope.”
5. Lean on Your Supports
Every parent needs a community. Connecting with others, especially fellow parents, can help you feel less alone. And asking for help when you need it can actually help you be a better parent.
“We get through the bad with the help of people who love us,” says Kennedy-Moore. “If we look over the things we've dealt with in the past, it's the people who care about us who have really made the burden lighter.”
6. Remember: You Will Make Mistakes
Fearing that you’re “messing up” your children can be a huge source of parental stress, notes Kissen.
But parenthood is a journey, and it’s okay to make mistakes along the way. “Try not to get so worried about occasional or even somewhat frequent nonideal parenting moments,” she says. “That's not going to permanently mess up your child.”
And remember, there’s no such thing as a “perfect” parent. “I really try to work with parents on ‘good enough’ parenting and what that means to them, based on their values,” adds Kissen.
“And that's really what we all should be aiming for. Because even [so-called] perfect parenting wouldn’t necessarily set your child up for life, because you're not going to have a perfect boss. You're not going to have perfect friends.”
When to Seek Help
Worry is common, but letting it overwhelm you helps no one. If you feel continuously, excessively worried, it may be time to seek professional help. “It really depends on the frequency of symptoms, the level of distress it's causing, and how much it's negatively impacting functioning,” says Kissen.
Meeting with a therapist, psychologist, or social worker can help you work through issues and find better ways to cope. “When we're nose deep in whatever the situation is, it's hard to get the whole picture,” notes Kennedy-Moore. “Often, the psychologist will be able to see it from a wider perspective.”
Don’t feel like you need to wait for things to get worse before reaching out to a mental health professional. “Sometimes, people hold off seeking help because they say, ‘Well, it's not that bad.’ But if it's not that bad, it may not take that much to make a big difference.”
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