When was the last time you took a day off from parenting because you were sick or just needed a break? Think of parenting as a marathon, not a sprint, and you realize how important it is for parents to stay in shape mentally and physically. Parenting is hard even on your best days. Whether your baby is waking up all night long because he’s teething or your toddler is having another meltdown at the grocery store or your teenager is refusing to talk to you for weeks, parenting will test the limits of your patience repeatedly. And how you react to these trying moments matters in the emotional well being of your children as well as your relationship with them.
In stressful moments with their children, parents may react by snapping, lashing out, shouting, using harsh language. These are behaviors that parents may resort to because they are too tired, too frustrated, or simply at their wit’s end. However, when parents react these ways, they are missing out on an opportunity to address the underlying issues. Children may be acting up not because they are trying to make their parents’ lives difficult. There might be other factors affecting their behavior such as struggles in school or problems with friends. Furthermore, kids model the behavior of the adults. When parents react badly in stressful situations, parents are teaching their children that it is acceptable to act in such manner.
Parenting is not supposed to be stress-free. And it may not be realistic for parents to behave in a rational and calm manner at all times. However, here are 10 strategies you can incorporate in your lives and help you minimize stress as you navigate through parenthood.
- Assign chores for kids – Often parents complain about how much chores they have to do around the house. And if I ask why not assign some of these chores to children, they correctly respond with one of these comments. It requires more work and energy to teach them. Or it is one more thing for the parents to nag about. Or if children have done it, you have to do it over because they messed up. While it may be more efficient and effective to do most chores by yourself, children can take on activities that are appropriate for their age and skill level. For younger kids, start with an activity as simple as putting away their own mess such as their dinner plate or their dirty laundry. Also they can clean up their own room and make their own bed. Instead of getting drinks for them, keep water pitcher and cups on a table they can reach. For older kids, they can help with meal preparation, schedule their own appointments, take the trash out and be in charge of taking care of family pets. Finally, once you assign responsibility, let them fail and struggle. It might take them an hour to do the dishes that would have taken you 20 minutes but eventually they will get the hang of it. Your teenager might ask you for the tenth time how to set the washer setting or she might even ruin a sweater or two but eventually she will learn. Parents often forget how much time and energy (both mental and physical) are wasted in attending to kids’ every needs. In addition to learning important life skills, children will learn the value of being an integral part of the family.
- See the big picture and pick your battle – It is worthwhile to take a step back and see the big picture when dealing with stressful moments with your children. Perhaps your daughter is having a meltdown in the middle of the grocery store not because she wants to be difficult but because she is overtired and hungry after a long playdate and is in need of a snack or a nap. Perhaps your son was particularly sullen and rude when you picked him up from school because he had a bad day at school. Instead of trying to discipline and correct every bad behavior, try to figure out the source of the problem and address it accordingly. Maybe what your son needs at the moment is a sympathetic ear or personal space instead of a lecture about manners.
- Time out for parents – There are various studies that show effectiveness of time outs for children. But I would like to talk about time out for parents. Too often, parents immediately react to the situation on hand and their first response may not be their best response. Taking a small breather would allow parents to cool down and reassess the situation. As long as your child is in a safe place, you might want to move to a different location (another part of the house) and just take a couple deep breaths. If you have a child that you cannot leave alone, then close your eyes and count to 10 while taking deep breaths. Even a simple delay of few seconds will refresh your mind and slow your heart beat. Also try coming up with a mantra that works for you. I have a friend who was going through a particularly difficult phase with her son. She put up a post it in her room and that is where she walked over to calm down before returning to her child. Her mantra varied from inspirational quotes to adorable things her son had said.
- Think positive – When you have to discipline your child, remember that kids are fickle. Your toddler may act like it is the end of the world because you refuse to give in and buy him that Nerf gun at Target. Your teenager may act like she will never talk to you again because you took her phone away during dinner time. The important thing is to keep a positive attitude and realize that no matter how bad meltdown or how long the cold shoulder lasts, things will pass. This is especially true for younger kids.
- Exercise – There are endless benefits of exercise. Exercise improves your mood and energy level. Exercise helps you manage your chronic pain and illnesses. Exercise minimizes the risk of certain diseases. Exercise controls your weight. Exercise improves your sleep. Exercise helps you live longer and healthier. We know all these short and long term benefits but it is so hard to carve out the time for exercise when you have spent the day shuttling kids around, preparing meals, doing laundry, running errands… the list goes on and on. The good news is exercise does not have to be going to gym every day and putting an hour into weight lifting. Exercise can be modified to fit your schedule and your budget. YouTube has thousands of exercise videos on yoga, Pilates, bodybuilding, stretching and many more. You can take a 30 minute walk with your friend at the park. You can join a gym. You can take kickboxing lessons. The important thing is to try different exercises and routines and figure out what you enjoy the most as well as what fits your schedule best.
- Healthy diet – A healthy diet does not need to be complicated. However, it does take a little bit of planning. It is almost impossible not to resort to drive through or fast food when you have no meal plans in place and the children are hangry. Meal planning means picking out a day out of the week and planning ahead the meals for the rest of the week. Once you have a plan, it is easy to grocery shop and even do some of the meal preparation in advance. You can make pasta and rice in batches and portion them out for the week. Vegetables and fruits can be washed and cut in advance. If you know you will be tempted to reach for that bag of chocolate or gummies for snacks, try making small portions in a container that you can pack or take with you easily if you are on the go. If you know you have a long day ahead of you and cannot make it home until dinner time, think of cooking slow cooker and instant pots recipes. Lastly, stay hydrated and do not skip meals. Parents are so focused on attending to every need of their children, they often forget to take care of their most basic needs.
- Rest – Just as your toddler’s temper tantrum intensifies as she gets more sleepy and tired, parents need to replenish before they reach their breaking point. We all understand the temptation of Netflix, Instagram or Pinterest. We turn on the phone or tv thinking just one episode or only 30 minutes of surfing, the next thing we know we finished the whole season or the daylight is breaking. Try to leave the electronics out of the bedroom. If you still want to unwind before going to bed, try listening to an audiobook or a podcast and setting the sleep timer so that if you are not already asleep you know you should be when the timer turns off the show. Getting a good night of sleep is especially hard for parents with young children or newborns. It is tempting to get a little work done while your child is taking a nap but try to rest up when she is and you will be much more efficient for the rest of the day.
- Get help from friends and family – So many parents struggle on their own because they believe asking for help means they are failing as parents. Building a network of friends and family is beneficial not just for carpooling purposes. The relationship you build with your neighbors, friends and family will be the additional network of support for your kids as they grow up. So do not be afraid to offer babysitting when your neighbor is in a bind and they can return the favor in the future. Carpool with neighbors. Invite grandparents and uncles and aunts not just for special occasions but for weekly soccer practices and dance lessons. The more they become part of your children’s lives, the easier it would be for them to step in when needed.
- Get professional help – As important as self care is in navigating the stresses of parenthood, there may be times where you may need to seek professional help. Whether you are suffering from postpartum depression or chronic anxiety or depression or just dealing with a lot of stress, a professional can give you the correct diagnosis that will help you get back on track so that you can do your job as a parent.
- Be kind to yourself – This is the hardest one for a lot of parents. Especially in this age of social media, it is easy to fool ourselves into believing your friends and even complete strangers on Facebook are being better parents than you are. You are constantly bombarded with beautiful pictures of children smiling with their arms wrapped around their beautiful parents with perfectly combed hair and no stains on their shirts. In reality, parenting is hard and messy. Even with best intentions, we fail. You should not beat yourself up for your shortcomings of the day. Think of the next day as a brand new opportunity. Then you can reset and recalibrate your goals and you will come out with better results.