Family Matters / Ed Moran
Are we stressing out our kids?
"Are you tired, rundown, listless? Do you poop out at parties? Are you unpopular?" Sound familiar? Most will remember this line from the classic episode of "I Love Lucy" -- the one when Lucy tries to get into show business. Lucy is performing in a commercial for a product, Vitameatavegamin, developed to eliminate the aforementioned symptoms, which perhaps we can all recognize as some pretty common reactions to our old friend stress.
Plenty of us can understand or identify with the desire to "spoon your way to health" but the underlying message here is that stress impacts us all in ways that can further complicate already cluttered lives. What we sometimes lose sight of though, is exactly how our stress and anxieties can impact our children.
Stress isn't necessarily the evil monster some make it out to be. In small controlled doses it can be a positive influence. It helps us meet deadlines, set life goals and accomplish them. It enables us to detect danger, assess it and respond to it accordingly. When operating efficiently this "fight-or-flight" response is what prevents us from reacting to the wild mountain lion we just startled in the woods with "Here, kitty, kitty!" But when our stress is more external, intense and constant, we begin to see some negative impact. Our kids are no different. Kids need a healthy understanding of anxiety and how to manage it effectively. Whether it's a school project deadline, the anticipation of a big game, or the pressures of social success, your kids feel stress. Working to reduce the impact of our stress upon them goes a long way in the development of healthy stress management.
Parental stress impacts children in different ways. For example, for younger children, parents are the providers of the very basic needs of safety, security and soothing. When parents become preoccupied with their day-to-day stress it can appear to the child that their parents are unavailable or unable to meet those needs, often causing the child to feel anxious. On a more basic level we have to remember that kids are watching at all times. They learn how to respond to situations through these observations. If we manage stress by lashing out that's what they'll learn. If we manage stress by isolating and avoiding, that's what they'll learn. If we don't manage our stress effectively, neither will they.
So how do we keep our stress from impacting our kids?
"¢ Cool off. If you're overwhelmed in the moment and at risk of lashing out remove yourself from the situation until you can address it in a healthier way.
"¢ Take regular time to yourself. We can be there for our kids if we aren't operating at 100 percent. Taking care of ourselves regularly is crucial.
"¢ Avoid using alcohol to self-medicate.
"¢ Communicate. If you're under stress and you think your kids are noticing talk to them about it in an age appropriate manner. If you think you've lashed out as a result, apologize.
"¢ Be accessible. If you kids are struggling it's important that they feel you are available to them to talk.
"¢ Maintain structure and routine whenever possible. Kids thrive on structure and routine. Stress can make us more likely break it out of sheer exhaustion.
"¢ Utilize supports. Talk to your spouse, your friends or another trusted resource.
"¢ Counseling. Sometimes the stress is too overwhelming and can appear unmanageable. In these cases seeking help from a trained professional is a great option.
It's important to remember that the goal is not necessarily to rid ourselves of all stress. Sometimes what our lives need is a simple garage sale. Examining our lives, determining what we want to save and what will go in the trash heap, can give us added strength to manage our day to day stress and anxiety. Increasing our awareness of what we're modeling for our children can go a long way in helping them manage theirs.
Ed Moran, LCSW, is a clinical social worker at Family Centers, which serves New Canaan, Darien, Stamford and Greenwich. He provides psychotherapy for children, adolescents and their families and runs after school support groups for middle and high school boys. For more information visit www.familycenters.org.