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Stressed Out Parents

Children can pick up on your stress and act out (which leads to more stress!)

A favorite singer of mine, Ani DiFranco wrote a song called, "Buildings and Bridges," which I'd like to quote:

Buildings and bridges
Are made to bend in the wind
To withstand the world,
That's what it takes
All that steel and stone
Are no match for the air, my friend
What doesn't bend breaks
What doesn't bend breaks

On an almost daily basis, each of us encounters problems to be solved, questions to be answered decisions to be made, and a pile of things we would like to accomplish. In short, every day requires us to navigate through stress. As DiFranco would advise, we have to bend to what life brings, in order to avoid breaking.

If you are a parent, in addition to handling your own issues, you also have to keep an eye on your child, to help him or her learn how to handle stress with grace and competence. Each child is born without any ability to deal with frustration or solve problems. It is up to you as a parent to model and teach your child how life should be lived. In short, your child needs to learn how to bend, so that he doesn't break.

Some research to help

A study that was just published on October 8, 2017, examined the connection between parental stress and child behavior problems. Some key questions that this study could inspire in you include: When you experience stress, how do you handle it? Your child is watching...When your child experiences stress, what level of support and encouragement do you offer him?

As I've written elsewhere (see my article on "How poverty hurts children"), stress impacts our parenting, especially when it occupies a front-and-center place in our minds. Parents with high stress demonstrate less warmth, lower levels of responsiveness, less affection, and are more likely to use discipline that is either harsh or uninvolved. They are also more likely to use controlling tactics to get their child to obey. In contrast, parents with less stress use more positive parenting behaviors such as warmth, sensitivity, listening, understanding, and scaffolding (which we'll talk about below).

Having time and energy matters

What is the common strand running through all of these practices? Time and energy. When you're worried about a recent crisis at your job, or an interpersonal problem that has affected your family, you can easily get preoccupied with worry, anxiety, and worst-case scenarios. It can be difficult to break away from your thoughts to handle your son's whining or your daughter's questions about the sky. Your child's problems may seem unimportant, compared to what you are going through, but your child doesn't see it that way. Regardless, when we are at wit's end, our first response to yet another demand can be whatever is quickest and takes the least energy.

Spanking is faster than talking and communicating; walking away or criticizing your daughter takes less energy than providing calm interest; grabbing your son's hand and dragging him away from his toys is faster than preparing him to leave "in five minutes" and then kindly requesting him to finish up; if your son is trying to put two train cars together and is feeling frustration, it's easier and faster to just pick up the train cars and put them together yourself, than it is to sit down and talk him through strategies and alternate solutions.

Stress can infect your interactions

In the study cited above, children and their parents were put in a play area, and asked to engage in three tasks: a) a child-led play task (where the child could choose what activity she did with her mother); b) a parent-led play task (where the parent made the decision); c) a clean-up task. This final task was the focus of attention. In particular, the researchers were observing and analyzing the ways that parents engaged in the clean-up task with their children. Did they just do all the clean up themselves? Did they order the child to do everything? Or, better, did the cleanup task serve as a platform for mutual engagement, conversation, and attachment?

The focus of this study was on "the quality of the parent's assistance, or the degree to which parents provide the support necessary to enable a child to attempt a task, giving the minimal but sufficient amount of assistance necessary to promote maximum autonomy."

The most optimal parenting behaviors in this study were a happy medium between doing the work themselves and ordering the child to do everything. Parents who accomplished this balancing act provided high-quality assistance, high sensitivity and a moderate level of involvement.

In the field of teaching, there is a term that applies to this lesson on positive parenting: scaffolding. Scaffolding is the practice of identifying what a child's current level of competence is, and then gently pushing the child to achieve at a level just beyond what they've already mastered. A child can be motivated to reach a little higher when the trusted adult in the room uses supportive communication and open-ended questions to guide the task at hand and creates a safe environment for the child to make mistakes.

The parents in this study who were coded as using positive parenting got down on the floor with their child, helped their child to clean up the room, and engaged with their child in conversation while the task was being completed. "Do you remember when we played with the bunny?" "That was fun. Where are you going to put the train?" "I think you'd better put those two pieces together before you put it in the toy chest or it's going to get separated." Sure, the parents could just put the pieces together themselves, or put the train on the windowsill without having to talk about it. In fact, doing so would almost certainly be faster and more efficient than waiting for their child to do it.

Have you ever waited for your child to tie his shoes and gotten antsy that it was taking too long? If you were in a hurry, you were probably tempted to just go over and tie the shoes yourself so that you could get going. When you have more luxury to take your time, you can use that experience to help them get better at tying their shoes. "You look like you're having trouble. Untie them, and start over. Let me see what you're doing and I can help." This is scaffolding at its best: kind instruction, focused time and attention while granting your child maximum autonomy to accomplish the task on his own.


Since these kinds of positive parenting practices are related to better child adjustment, social development, cognitive/language skills, increased empathy, and emotional competence, scaffolding is an important strategy to keep in mind.

1) Pay attention to your stress.

Try your best to put your worries aside when your child needs help. Those worries will still be there after you offer your assistance. Even when you're totally pressed, you can still say to your child, "Listen. I am really busy today and don't have a lot of time. But I want to be with you, even if I can't give you too much right now. How about we just hang out and talk or play for 15 minutes? We can talk about or do anything you want." Surely, you can find 15 minutes to give your son or daughter some undivided attention. She'll understand, she'll appreciate your effort, and the time away from your problems could be good for you too!

2) Watch your interactions

Even when you don't mean it, hasty, hostile, and annoyed words can stick with your child for quite a while. My hope is that being more aware of how stress can take some of your mental reserves away, and make you more likely to be triggered by small inconveniences, can give you the capacity to step outside yourself and think metacognitively about how you want to communicate with your child when she is in need. It's ok to tell her that you don't have the time right now, but it would be best to tell her that in a calm, loving tone, than to mix what you have to say with emotions you're feeling that have nothing to do with her.

3) Get support

One of the best ways to lessen your stress is to have a social network. This could be family members, friends, people at a place of worship, or members of a club to which you belong. You don't necessarily need someone to babysit your children, or to take care of some of your chores. Sometimes, all you need is someone to go out with you and let you have some fun. The more isolated you are, the harder it is to be resilient and compartmentalize your stress.

Stress is real. Stress is distracting. Stress is...stressful. Take note of your stress levels as they fluctuate throughout the day. The more aware you are of how you're feeling, the more you can keep your anxieties from attaching themselves to your parenting. This is hard work, this introspection and emotional control. In the long run, though, it's worth the investment.


Sanner, C. M., & Neece, C. L. (2017). Parental Distress and Child Behavior Problems: Parenting Behaviors as Mediators. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 1-11.

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