How to Feel Less Stressed as a Parent

Cara Goodwin, Ph.D.

Parents are currently experiencing an unprecedented level of stress. Not surprisingly, research finds that parental stress, as well as symptoms of anxiety and depression, increased significantly following the pandemic. The stressful disruptions of the pandemic may have also increased the likelihood of families experiencing more traumatic incidents. For example, 29 percent of parents report that their children have witnessed more domestic violence, and 42 percent report that their children have experienced increased verbal and emotional abuse following the pandemic.

At the same time, gun violence in the United States has increased to the point that death by firearms is now the leading cause of death in children (surpassing car accidents which were the leading cause of death in children for 60 years).

These recent events have also made parents feel uncertain about what they previously considered absolute truths, such as safety at school, their health, and their access to friends and hobbies that they enjoy. Research finds that experiencing this type of uncertainty will likely increase stress and anxiety. The brain requires a lot of energy to process uncertainty. This takes energy away from other important processes in the brain and body, potentially leading to difficulty with memory and executive functioning and health issues.

Finally, many parents may also be experiencing lingering “brain fog” after the pandemic, making it harder for them to function in their everyday lives. Research finds that “brain fog” (meaning an experience of feeling confused or “out of it,” mental slowness, or difficulty concentrating or remembering) is relatively common both in people who were infected by COVID-19 and those who were not, likely due to the stress and disruptions of the pandemic.

How can parents reduce their stress?

So how do we cope with this inordinate amount of stress? Is there anything we can do to decrease our stress levels?

1. Accept that you can’t be a “perfect” parent: A lot of our stress as parents involves feeling guilty about ways we have “failed” our kids or worrying that we might make the wrong decision for our children. Research finds that an intensive parenting style and child-centrism (meaning consistently prioritizing your child’s needs over your own) are associated with increased stress and depression in parents.

To avoid this parenting style, try to resist over-scheduling your child with activities that stress you out, prioritize your own needs occasionally, do not feel pressured to engage with your child every moment of the day, and allow your child to play independently. Also, remind yourself that being a “perfect” parent should not even be the goal. Not only is perfectionism likely to cause psychological distress for you as the parent, but being a perfectionist as a parent may also cause anxiety in your children and make them more likely to become a perfectionist themselves.

2. Learn how to tolerate uncertainty: Uncertainty is a huge source of stress, and it is even more stressful for people with high levels of “intolerance of uncertainty, “meaning people who tend to see any uncertain situation as negative. Intolerance of uncertainty is associated with anxiety and depression, and post-traumatic stress following a traumatic event. Intolerance of uncertainty may also make people less resilient, increasing the risk that negative life events lead to anxiety.

The resistance to uncertainty may contribute to engaging in behaviors aimed at reducing uncertainty, such as seeking reassurance from others, researching all possible outcomes, procrastinating or avoiding tasks, refusing to delegate to others, or keeping “busy” as a distraction, which increases anxiety about uncertainty.

If you feel like this description fits you, research on the treatment of intolerance of uncertainty suggests that you should first accept that it is impossible to be certain about everything in life. Rather than avoid uncertainty, you can seek out unpredictable or uncertain situations without seeking reassurance from others, analyzing all possible outcomes, or distracting yourself.

3. Practice mindfulness: Practicing mindfulness may seem like an annoying suggestion to an already stressed parent, but it really only needs to take a few minutes. Research finds that mindfulness can help parents accept and not overreact to negative life events, understand their children’s emotions, control their own emotions in challenging parenting situations, and have more compassion for themselves and their children.

Research also shows that mindfulness interventions are very effective at reducing parenting stress. So how exactly do busy parents learn how to practice mindfulness? Mindfulness apps can be a great place to start! A review of mindfulness apps on iTunes and Google Apps provided expert ratings on various apps and found that Headspace had the highest score, followed by Smiling Mind, iMindfulness, and Mindfulness Daily. Another study found that the Calm app reduced stress and increased self-compassion, and improved sleep issues.

4. Try to solve the problem: Research finds that teaching parents problem-solving skills helps to improve stress and results in improved child behavior. Parents who are taught effective problem-solving also show fewer symptoms of depression and improved mental health more generally. Effective problem solving involves the following steps: 1) clearly define the problem, 2) write out all possible solutions, 3) evaluate each solution one by one to determine the best solution, 4) implement the best solution, 5) evaluate whether the solution worked to address the problem and tweak it as needed.

Research shows that people who engage rather than disengage with thoughts related to their stress show improved well-being, and stress does not negatively affect them to the same extent.

5. Seek out social connection: Research shows that support from family, friends, and other parents is essential to parents’ well-being. Social support may also help you to cope with traumatic events and reduce the risk of postpartum mood disorders. Unfortunately, a lot of parents lost their social support network during the pandemic. Now may be the time to work on reforming your “village” of support. You can reach out to other parents at your child’s school, find local parenting groups, or try a new hobby involving other people, such as a running club or tennis clinic.

6. Prioritize sleep: Research finds that becoming a parent is associated with less sleep, yet sleep deprivation is associated with increased stress, emotional dysregulation, and depression. Get more sleep by going to sleep and waking up at the same time every day, avoiding electronics an hour before bed, limiting caffeine to the morning and early afternoon, avoiding alcohol and nicotine, getting regular exercise, and making sure your bedroom is a quiet and calm place.

7. Seek help from a mental health professional: If stress seems to be interfering in your everyday life, disturbing your sleep or appetite, or you feel like it is negatively impacting your relationships, seek out a consultation with a mental health professional (such as a psychologist, counselor, therapist, or social worker). Therapy, particularly cognitive behavioral therapy, effectively reduces stress and anxiety symptoms. A therapist can teach you effective methods for managing stress and tolerating negative emotions.

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