As a parent, you already know that stress is as much a part of life as bedtime battles and picky eating. But what you may not realize is that your frustrations can impact your children's own stress levels, and before long, your once-peaceful house is filled with shouting, meltdowns, and one-word answers.
Can you rid yourself completely of stress? Doubtful—but there are ways to minimize it. Here, experts highlight seven ways to tell your family is overly stressed, plus advice on what you can do about it.
1. No one is sleeping. When your stress levels are at an all-time high, sleep is one of the first casualties. (Oh hello there, insomnia!) This lack of shut-eye can make you crankier, anxious, and, yup, more stressed. If you and your family are feeling the strain, "put the kids to bed a half hour earlier and put yourself to bed a half hour earlier as well," advises Tanya Altmann, M.D., a pediatrician in Calabasas, California, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics, and author of What to Feed Your Baby.
2. You're yelling at each other more. Wondering if the pressure is starting to get to your family? Use your ears—oftentimes the more stressed we feel, the more we yell and fuss. Softening your own voice can help bring down the volume, as can taking a time out together, Dr. Altmann says. "You can say, 'Mommy needs one, and we're going to lie here and hug and take deep breaths and start over," she adds. "It's just as much for you as it is for them."
3. You've cut down on family dinners. Sad truth: When you or your partner are stressed-out and cranky, your older kid may skip out on mealtime to avoid talking to you, says Mary Alvord, Ph.D., a psychologist in Rockville, Maryland, a public education coordinator for the American Psychological Association, and author of several books on relaxation and building resilience.
To make dinner more enjoyable again, she recommends having everyone write down something positive they observed about another family member and drop it in a basket in the middle of the table. During meals, pull from the so-called "compliment basket" and read the observations aloud. "It can help kids look forward to meal time, and it's a great way to give praise for specific things, which is better than general praise," Dr. Alvord says.
4. Your child is withdrawing. During times of high stress, some children shut themselves off from others. Older kids might lock themselves in their room more, for example, while younger ones may stop asking to have playdates with friends.
Sound familiar? A check-in could be in order. "Talk to your kids. Talk and keep talking. Keep the conversation open," Dr. Alvord says. "And if you're stressed, say it—'I'm going to take a hot bath and chill out for a bit.' Problem-solve out loud so they know how you handle stress."
By the same token, be sure you're modeling good coping mechanisms for your children. If yours are less-than-positive—think overeating, drinking, oversleeping—try adopting healthier habits, like deep breathing, mindfulness, and regular exercise, she adds.
5. You're struggling at work. Missed a deadline? Blew a major presentation? Stress may be the culprit, as it robs you of your ability to concentrate and stay organized. Dr. Alvord recommends identifying your biggest pain points, and brainstorming solutions with your partner. "If getting out the door in the morning is hard, for example, you may want to do more prep the night before for the next morning," she says.
6. Everyone is under the weather. No matter your age, chronic stress can take a toll on your body. Younger children may complain about stomach aches and nightmares, while teens often get headaches, and adults typically feel stress in the neck, shoulders, and back. Everyone, meanwhile, experiences sleep issues.
So it's no wonder that when your family is overstressed, your immune systems are lowered and your chances of illness may increase. Besides going to be earlier, be sure to regularly wash your hands, exercise, and eat healthy. And it may sound obvious, but try to remove stress wherever you can. One good way to do that is to decompress regularly as a family, Dr. Alvord says, which could be anything from playing a board game to watching a movie to going on a walk around the block.
7. You and the kids are running around—all the time. Rushing from one after-school activity to the next can make your family feel anxious, which in turn can cause muscle tension, headaches, stomach aches, and host of other not-so-pleasant issues. If you find yourself feeling overstressed in the moment, try hitting the pause button, Dr. Altmann says. "Let's say your family is running around like crazy because you'll be late to a sporting event and can't find your kid's cleats," she says. "Stop what you're doing, and take 10 deep breaths. It's better to arrive a few minutes late with everything you need than to not be able to play because your child doesn't have all of their equipment."
A longer-term strategy? Finally get serious about striking that life balance in your family. "If you find that your child is doing too much of anything, you have to question if that's healthy," Dr. Alvord points out. "Parents need down time, and kids need down time."