What Parental Stress Means For You And Your Family

Updated May 20, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
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As a parent or guardian, you already know your life and responsibilities are no longer just about you. Just as your family is happier when you’re happy, your parental stress can significantly impact your family, too. You may identify solutions for stress management in your everyday life by understanding how parenting stress affects your family relationships. Below, we’ll explore how parental stress can affect your family and how therapy can help you manage the effects of your symptoms so that they don’t interfere with your life.

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Are you worried your stress as a parent affects your children?

What is stress?

Stress generally means strain or pressure, and people can experience it in numerous ways. Physical stress often occurs due to illness or disease, interfering with normal bodily function. Emotional stress can influence your mood, behaviors, and thought patterns. Psychological stress, such as fear, can trigger your body’s fight-or-flight stress response in reaction to perceived threats. 

“Stress can be defined as a state of worry or mental tension caused by a difficult situation. Stress is a natural human response that prompts us to address challenges and threats in our lives. Everyone experiences stress to some degree. The way we respond to stress, however, makes a big difference to our overall well-being.” — World Health Organization

Types of stress

Acute

Acute stress is often caused by everyday, short-term stressors you encounter in daily life, such as a traffic jam or an argument. 

Chronic

Persistent, long-term stressors, such as problems in a marriage, health concerns, or stressful occupations, may feel inescapable. Childhood trauma or adult traumatic experiences can also cause chronic stress.  

Episodic acute

These stressors can feel like a way of life, with something new always causing you stress, and the flow of problems can feel never-ending. You may habitually react in a certain way to stress, which can contribute to ongoing distress. 

Eustress

Not all stress is negative. This type can be positive and energizing, motivating you to action with adrenaline surges. For example, eustress may help you finish a project by the deadline or give you the energy to finish a race once you spot the finish line. 

How stress can affect your body

Chronic stress can cause you to produce excessive stress hormones. If left untreated, the build-up of stress hormones can put extra wear and tear on your body, adversely affecting your overall health and well-being—and aging you faster. Unresolved stress can lead to problems with your digestive, immune, nervous, and cardiovascular systems, along with causing weight gain or loss.   

Physical

You may experience chest or other pain without apparent cause, including muscle tension, headaches, fatigue, and stomach aches. 

Emotional

Symptoms may include anxiety, restlessness, irritability, lack of motivation, sadness or depression, difficulty focusing, and feels of overwhelm. 

Behavioral

You may notice drastic changes to your sleep patterns, shifting eating habits where you over- or under-eat, alcohol or substance use, out-of-character outbursts, decreased physical activity, and social withdrawal. 

How parental stress can affect your family

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Your stress as a parent or guardian can affect your family significantly. Stress reactions can be learned behaviors. If you’re consistently stressed out, your children may pick up on those behaviors and emulate them.

When you’re feeling stressed, you may be more likely to snap at your partner or children or demonstrate frustrated and anxious behavior. This can result in them approaching you less to avoid upsetting you. 

If you often work long hours to provide for your family, your children may notice your absence, and a distance could develop between you, causing further stress. At least one child may take on the role of caretaker and try to defend parents from stress. Older children who take on parental roles in caretaking for their siblings in middle childhood can experience more stress. This can create a transactional relationship, where children feel responsible for making sure their parents are happy.

What causes parental stress?

Stress isn’t very good at maintaining boundaries. Worries from work can follow you home, for example, and financial concerns don’t disappear when you have a family emergency. You may worry about whether you’re an effective parent or if you’re making major mistakes as a caregiver. 

The list of what causes parental stress is nearly endless, but there are some common factors that may help you determine areas where you might try to reduce your stress as a parent. 

  • Burnout as a parent
  • Children with developmental disorders and medical conditions
  • Lack of support from friends and family
  • Overwhelming mental load
  • Trouble with child discipline
  • Difficulties at work
  • Financial troubles
  • Family planning and unexpected pregnancy
  • Family conflict or issues with other caregivers
  • The role of caregiver for elderly relatives
  • Lack of work-life balance
  • Sleep deprivation

The link between mental health in parents and children

Children and teens often report feeling worried or sad when they see those emotions in their parents. Maternal parenting stress can affect a child’s development and emotional well being. According to a 2021 study, researchers found a substantial link between maternal anxiety and depression and the emergence of similar symptoms in children. A 2020 study found a significant association between parental stress during infancy and the mental health of three-year-old children. Stressed out parents are less likely to engage in positive bonding activities with their children, which may influence child development and can lead to child behavior problems. Family dynamics are just that—dynamic, with each person contributing to the health of the household.

Understanding family stressors

Normative

These stressors are the common hassles you and your family may face in your daily lives. Normative stressors also include the typical long-term developmental transitions that occur as your children grow and change.  

Nonnormative

Unpredictable, dramatic, and sudden stressors, leaving your family little or no time to prepare for substantial disruption to your lives. Examples include deaths, natural disasters, injuries, moving, loss of work, or an unexpected windfall. 

Chronic

Unusual experiences that can occur over extended periods, such as divorce or lowered income due to financial difficulties. These stressors may be challenging to resolve and can lead to debilitating effects for parents and children.

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Are you worried your stress as a parent affects your children?

Finding healthy ways to manage parental stress

One of the most effective and practical ways to defend your family from the effects of parental stress is to find strategies to manage your symptoms so you can live a productive life without the interference of their impact. 

Establish and maintain a self-care routine

Self-care is vital. As a parent or guardian, you may feel many things come before your needs. However, when you incorporate self-care into your routine, you present the best version of yourself for your family. Stressful life events can make parenting stress worse, but having a regular self-care routine can ensure that you are making time for yourself. Taking care of yourself allows you to take better care of your family. 

Build an adaptive, evolving repertoire of coping skills

According to the Mayo Clinic, unchecked stress can contribute to multiple health problems, which you can mitigate with positive, practical coping skills. As your circumstances change, the same techniques may not work as well, but it may help to adapt and evolve your strategies over time.

Make your sleep a priority

When you are feeling overwhelmed, you might sacrifice your sleep in order to gain a sense of control by being productive. Catching up on work emails, household care tasks, or leisure activities may seem like a good use of time, but it can also lead to burnout. Sleep deprivation and poor sleep can cause more parenting stress, and may make it more difficult to cope with daily stressors. Lack of sleep may affect your parenting practices, mood, or ability to manage behavioral problems. With increased sleep interruptions postpartum, stressed mothers tend to be less sensitive to their infants’ cues. Prioritizing sleep can help you stay refreshed, energized, and better equipped to deal with stress and child care.

Seek social support

Having a social support system can be helpful when experiencing parental or maternal stress. Seeking support from friends, family members, or online groups can provide an outlet for expressing your thoughts and feelings. It may help you to connect with people who can relate to the challenges you face, offering a safe space for meaningful conversations or advice. 

Tips for coping with parental stress

  • Establish a behavior management plan to provide clear expectations and consequences for your children. You might avoid situations devolving into anger and stress by utilizing a disciplinary framework that lets you and your child know how to handle a situation.
  • Incorporate music into your routine. A 2021 study shows that listening to music can reduce stress hormone levels.
  • Have open conversations about mental health with your family. Emotional intelligence (recognizing and understanding emotions) and emotional literacy (expressing your feelings and needs) are valuable skills for a healthy family dynamic. 
  • Practice a mindful lifestyle. Meditation, yoga, relaxation methods, and deep breathing techniques can help manage your stress reactions. Practicing mindfulness may help parents report reduced parental stress and improve psychological child characteristics like emotional self-control.

How therapy can help you manage parental stress

If you’re having trouble managing your stress and emotional reactions, consider working with a licensed therapist through an online therapy platform like BetterHelp. Therapy can help you develop coping strategies to manage your stress and communication skills to relate better to your family. Online treatment offers flexible appointment formats through phone, video calls, or online chat. Virtual treatment tends to be significantly less expensive and often involves shorter wait times. 

Research published by the American Psychological Association shows that online therapy can be as effective as treatments in the traditional office setting. Many individuals said it was easier to intimate personal details with their therapist due to the additional physical distance of teletherapy. The convenience of attending from home meant that many people could participate in more sessions, which can increase the effectiveness and duration of therapeutic outcomes. 

Takeaway

Feeling stressed and worried about your ability to parent is a typical experience for many caregivers. However, if your stress is extreme and extended, it can affect your family. Whatever the causes of your stress, you don’t have to face them alone. Parenting stress measures may be easier to put into place with the help of a therapist. With BetterHelp, you can be matched with a therapist with experience helping parents manage stress. Take the first step to reducing stress and reach out to BetterHelp today.

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