Photo by BLW Photography
Parents love to complain about how much our kids wear us thin. Half joking, half serious, we tell tales about the messes they make all over the house, the night we spent up with them in the bathroom, and how we might as well start a taxi service for all the driving around town we do, carting our kids from place to place.
But do we ever really consider how much we might be stressing our kids out? I’m not talking about the so-called stresses our kids openly voice complaints about (“Why do I have to take a shower again? or “You mean I have to put the dishes in the dishwasher??”). I’m talking about the various ways our real, adult stresses radiate off our bodies, contaminating our little ones.
An article in the November 11 Wall Street Journal suggests this might be happening much more than we think. (The WSJ article is reporting on the results of a new American Psychological Association study on stress.)
Nearly 7 in 10 parents say their stress is having little or no impact on their children. Ask the children, however, and 91% say they know their parents are stressed because they see them yelling, arguing and complaining, or because their parents never have enough time to spend with them. A large minority of kids feel sad, worried, and frustrated as a result.
Our denial might be as harmful as the stress itself
I think it’s important to note that the study’s data isn’t pointing to the problem of stress in our lives as much as it’s pointing to the issues that arise when parents underestimate the impact of stress on kids. In other words, parents are in denial and out of touch. We can’t see stress the way we can see a kid’s runny nose, and we believe what’s out of sight is out of mind. We also believe kids are somehow impervious to the weighty matters that rest on our shoulders—that they can’t absorb the stress of issues they don’t fully understand, like a bad economy or a complex conflict with a family member.
This denial is a problem, of course, because it gives us permission to continue on with our own crazy life patterns, many of which are in our control to change. It also excuses us from talking to our kids about stress in honest, helpful ways. All this denial can have negative results—from minor health issues now, like headaches and stomach issues, to more significant ones down the road, like heart disease, diabetes and depression, the APA says.
Minimize some stress, face the rest
Without a doubt, it’s good for all of us to try to minimize the stress in our lives. I’m no doctor, but the more I learn about psychology and the immune system, the more sure I feel sure that stress is at the root of almost all health problems, from the health of our bodies and minds to the health of our relationships and communities. As I wrote recently in my post Reclaiming what the busy-thief stole, we need to examine what we lose when our lives get too busy, and then we need to figure out a plan of action for hanging onto those things—ferociously, like a protective parent.
A friend recently told me that she and her husband decided to claim one Saturday a month as sacred to them, free of any outside commitments. It might seem like a small thing, but if you examine the way your calendar works, my guess is that you’ll quickly see how rare a day like that is, and how difficult it is to make it happen. Just identifying something that is important to you, and protecting it from invasion and attack, is a valuable act. (The Love List project I started a while back is another way to practice focusing on what makes you who you are, and makes your life rich and meaningful.)
But some stress is simply a fact of life. Even if you live in a yurt, far from a busy city, you have stress—it just looks different from others’ stress. At some point we have to face that stress and cope with it in the best way we can. That includes not attempting to hide stress from our kids. Finding the right way to communicate our stress doesn’t necessarily mean scaring them, or making them worry more—much of life’s fear comes from issues we don’t understand and don’t face. Isn’t it better to try to understand them and face them together?