This past year has cranked up the stress and anxiety for most families. Fortunately, you can take steps to be the champion of calm in the household, teaching your children important skills that will help now and in the future. Parents.com's "Ask Your Mom" columnist, Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., shares how.

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An illustration of a mother and her children.
Credit: Caitlin-Marie Miner Ong.

I guarantee you are not alone in needing a calmer household, especially after this last year of parenting in what felt like a dystopian movie. The kids are still reeling. We are still reeling. And it's not over. The communal stress of the last 18 months has taken a toll on every single parent and child I know, as families have faced the most significant challenges of modern family life.

With three kids under age six, you did not need a pandemic for a stressful household! I appreciate you reaching out because as unattainable as calm can feel amid the chaos, it's so important for every one's well-being. Let's break it down into two parts: how you can help your middle child, and what you can do generally to achieve a less stressed family and household.

Signs of Stress in Kids

Your middle child is indeed showing hallmark signs of being overwhelmed by stress. We often separate physical and emotional symptoms as two different processes (biological and psychological) but the reality is they are highly interconnected. Children are prone to developing headaches and stomachaches when stressed, especially when they are still building skills to understand emotions, and how to better express them.

Trouble sleeping and angry outbursts can also be signs that the demands of a child's circumstances exceed their abilities to cope. At age 4, your daughter is at the developmental starting point of emotion regulation coming from within rather than relying solely on adults. Because she is so young, she needs the adults around her to do what we call co-regulation: help from you and other calmer grown-ups to soothe herself. Find calming strategies that work for her, and do them with her when possible. She will become more independent with time and practice.

Stress and the Family

You have good insight that sister's stress likely affects the baby, but possibly in a different way than you think. Even if the baby seems the most vulnerable, he might actually be the most protected. Babies are most affected by their primary caregivers' stress and how that might get in the way of caregivers' responsiveness. You staying as calm and responsive as possible with him is a significant buffer for the impact of his sister's strong emotions. With that said, your daughter's strong emotions likely affect your own stress levels since you know, you are human.

Steps to a Calmer Household

This is where the goal of a calmer household becomes so important. You and any other adult in the home set the tone of the household, so your level of calm has to take priority. The first step is to consider what you need to more effectively manage your own stress levels as a parent of three young children. I'm guessing at least one answer is breaks from being this parent. Look to your support system for the sake of your family unit: where can you get some relief? Even if it's finding opportunities to be with one or two children instead of all three (especially after this last year of so much togetherness), it changes up the dynamic and can relieve your load.

Beyond prioritizing your stress relief, you can see this challenging time as an opportunity to implement strategies and systems for the whole family that teach how to value and experience calm. Some options:

  • Do yoga together: There are some fun and engaging yoga videos geared toward children for free on YouTube. Practicing body movement with breathing can be a fun way for children to reap benefits of this practice while wrapped in fun.
  • Family breathing moments: Even for one to three minutes, practice different ways of deep breathing all together (kids like creative ways to think about deep breaths, like blowing out candles, or cooling down hot cocoa breaths). Maybe make it part of a routine, like before digging into lunch (or once everyone is digesting).
  • Schedule a family quiet hour (or half hour if your kids have trouble with a whole hour). You could schedule it during the baby's nap and make it a calming hour for the senses. Turn down lights, arrange some candles, light some incense, and have quiet activity choices like reading or coloring. You could even have corners of the house, or their rooms, set up with a favorite blanket and comfort items as their own little safe and cozy spaces. Remember, this is for you too, so pick your own calming activity and enjoy the quiet!

To include teaching with these approaches, explain to your children how calming our bodies can help us deal better with big feelings. When we take steps to relax our bodies, we can cope more calmly with problems that come up, including with each other, and everyone ends up feeling better. Doing these calming activities regularly can also help us sleep better and feel less worried overall.

Observation After the Calm

Once you feel like you are better able to prioritize your stress and be the champion of calm in your household, monitor how your middle child seems to be responding. Do you a notice a decrease in her headaches, stomachaches, problems sleeping, and angry outbursts? If not, you may need to branch out to a professional with expertise in young children. Often for this age group, which is highly sensitive to their caregivers, helping the parent helps the child. But if problems persist, you and she may need more expertise to more adequately support her specific needs.

The Bottom Line

I know it can be hard to believe when in the trenches of parenting young children that it gets easier, but it does. This is a season of parenting that can feel like it's lasting a lifetime, until it's over, and then it feels like a lifetime ago. In the meantime, to help you thrive instead of barely survive, aiming for a calmer, less stressed household is a valuable goal that can have a payoff for both parents and children that truly does last a lifetime.

Submit your parenting questions here, and they may be answered in future 'Ask Your Mom' columns.

Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois. She is a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.