Gretchen Francis can tell when her kids are stressed. Her boys, ages 3 and 4, don't furrow their brows, wring their hands, or even whine. Instead, they'll blow off steam by putting action figures in the toilet or tossing all the wipes out of a container. They'll dump folded laundry onto the floor, beg to be carried, or ask her to do things for them that they can handle on their own. The boys' outbursts happen like clockwork just before or after one of her husband's frequent out-of-town business trips. "Transition times are always tough," says Francis. "The kids' routine is shaken up; they have to deal with their dad being gone for a while, then readjust when he returns. When there's stress in the house, I see a big difference in my boys."
As a rule, children crave calm and stability. And that's difficult to achieve when family time is fractured by parents traveling, working late hours, and living with the constant demands of a crazy schedule. "Parents feel overwhelmed," says Kristy Hagar, PhD, a child neuropsychologist at Children's Medical Center Dallas, and a mother of daughters ages 4 and 6. "There's too much to do and not enough time. When you're stressed and time-pressured, children can hear it in your voice -- you say 'Let's go, let's go!' or 'Do it now!'" Think about it: If you're frantic, your kids will feel more out of control too. "Children pick up on whether parents are fully there," adds Roni Cohen-Sandler, PhD, author of Stressed-Out Girls: Helping Them Thrive in the Age of Pressure. "When you're preoccupied, it makes kids, even babies, feel less safe, and they'll keep upping the ante by doing things like throwing tantrums to force you to pay attention."