Getting Comfortable with Discomfort -- 5 Ways to Cope with Parental Stress
“When we are willing to stay even a moment with uncomfortable energy, we gradually learn not to fear it.” – Pema Chodron
Stress is a part of life. For parents stress is a daily part of life. Some days are low stress, some days are high, but there is always some sort of something happening. It could be dealing with a diaper blow out, a fever, getting to school/work on time, having dinner ready, or refereeing the most recent fight between siblings. It could be juggling three birthday parties on the same day, paying the bills, finding a babysitter or deciding on the right school. The list of parental stress goes on and on, but no matter the cause stress is typically uncomfortable. For people who tend toward anxiety becoming a parent, with its constant stream of stress, can make those anxious, uncomfortable feelings skyrocket.
We all handle the discomfort of stress and anxiety in our own way. Being aware of how we do this can be tricky. In fact, many people avoid or flat out run (knowingly or not) from the discomfort of stress and anxiety. The problem is that typically when we avoid these feelings, when we leave them unrecognized, we head down a road leading to even more stress and anxiety. People find themselves feeling a bit more irritable. They may feel sad or “off.” Maybe they have a shorter fuse, feel keyed up or find themselves inexplicably full of rage. Any way you slice it the feeling is uncomfortable, and uncomfortable feelings almost always seek an outlet; almost always seek relief and release. This is a shared experience among humans – the need to alleviate our discomfort. Everyone experiences this feeling – parents included; parents especially.
So what happens when a parent is stressed or anxious and those uncomfortable feelings seek relief? Well, that’s a complicated answer with a lot of variables including personality, temperament, coping strategies and self-awareness. That last part, self-awareness, is no easy task as more often than not parents are stretched thin. They do not always have the ability or even the capacity to acknowledge or reflect on their emotions. Parents often literally don’t have the time or mental energy for self-reflection. Instead a parent becomes reactive to a situation that may be exacerbating their stress. This reaction is the mind’s way of seeking relief, of taking action and in doing so alleviating the built up pressure. Perhaps this “alleviation” involves a parent yelling at their child more than they’d like. Perhaps a parent becomes hyper-vigilant at the park protecting against any and all injury. Perhaps from stress and feelings of being overwhelmed a parent shames their child for doing typical child things (spilling, shouting, crying). Perhaps a parent finds themselves having one drink too many every night after the kids have gone to bed.
I know it doesn’t seem like any of those things are particularly pleasant or remotely stress reducing, and yet, somehow stress, anxiety, uncomfortable feelings are alleviated . . . for the moment. A person has taken action; they have moved towards change. The question is – was it helpful or hurtful? Do they truly feel better and in control, or are they now just somewhat calmed having released a big feeling or made effort to control a situation or a child? It doesn’t seem like it could be true, but these are all things that could potentially alleviate uncomfortable feelings. These reactions are in the moment, unconscious responses to thoughts and feelings. Once the daily stress calms a parent may reflect on their behavior, on the interactions they’ve had with their kids or with others and groan internally, wishing they had handled things differently. They may feel shame in how it all went down. Perhaps these feelings and thoughts lead to negative self-esteem, which leads to more stress and anxiety, which leads to more discomfort, which leads to further need for relief. It can be an endless cycle, but I’m here to offer some ideas on ways to stop that cycle; ways to reflect on and cope with your feelings.
First – give yourself a break! Remind yourself that parenting is hard. It is the hardest and most emotional job you will EVER have. Offer yourself some kindness. Try and remember that children are incredibly forgiving and incredibly resilient. Know that tomorrow is a new day offering you the opportunity to do differently.
Second – feel your feelings. The greatest way to deal with and maybe even get past your feelings is to allow yourself to feel and acknowledge them. Don’t judge your feelings or yourself for having them - there are no bad feelings. By allowing yourself to feel how you feel, to sit with those feelings rather than simply react you offer yourself the chance to go through them and remain intact and aware that you can survive them. You will calm down; the moment will pass; you can successfully, even as hard as it feels, manage your way through. As the quote above states: “When we are willing to stay even a moment with uncomfortable energy, we gradually learn not to fear it.”
Third – forgive yourself if you need to. This follows up with that initial suggestion to offer yourself a little kindness. Forgive yourself if you’ve yelled a little too much, or been a bit too snappy. Then, maybe talk with your kids about your feelings. Let them know that you didn’t like how you behaved and that YOU are sorry. Yes, parents can and should apologize to their kids when a situation warrants it. Maybe you don’t actually need to apologize, maybe you just need to share your feelings and explain that sometimes even grownups get stressed and may sound angry because of those feelings. Use yourself and your reactions as a teaching moment and then work to react differently. (*** If you find yourself having extreme or aggressive reactions see resources below).
Fourth – focus on reality. Stress and anxiety are the tricksters of emotions. They can make small things seem really big -- Everyone has a project due in 2 days? It will never all get done! A spot of your arm? Cancer! Someone at home starts coughing? Pneumonia! Your child has a learning disability? They’ll never go to college or find a job!! BREATHE. The truth is those things are possible, but the question is if they are probable? All of life is vulnerable to extremes – the best of or the worst of things. The reality, however, is that most of life happens in the middle. Most of life is neither the best nor the worst. This is a valuable reminder when life begins to feel overwhelming. So, if everyone is running late one morning think realistically – does this mean losing your job or not getting a diploma, or will it more likely mean being a bit late to class, getting $10 docked from your paycheck, having a note sent home or being called to the principal’s office? It’s true, these are not particularly pleasant things, but on a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being best case scenario, 10 being worst) they are neither a one nor a ten.
Fifth – get some support. I know it can often feel like you are the only one feeling this way, but you aren’t. You are not alone. You’re just one of so many parents suffering in silence – too embarrassed or ashamed to talk about what you’re feeling or doing. I go back to my first comment: parenting is hard. It is the hardest and most emotional job you will EVER have. There’s a reason they say it takes a village. But our “villages” are hard to recognize these days. We often have to look really hard for them. But you can find them. They’re there in your parenting Facebook groups, in your own family, with your colleagues or other peer groups in which you have some feeling of trust. Sometimes just hearing someone say, “yeah, that happens to me too” is all you need for support and relief.
So, while I have no magic elixir to take away stress, I do have some ideas on how to cope with it; on how to remember that we are ALL coping with stress and/or anxiety. Some people appear to be handling life with ease, but we never really know what is happening for a person. On the outside a person may seem calm, cool and collected, but inside they may feel shaky; they may find themselves having difficulty breathing, feeling chest pains, getting sweaty and/or dizzy. Some people might be questioning if they can really manage all that parenthood throws at them; maybe they're feeling on edge or even full of rage; maybe there's a growing worry that they can’t handle all their feelings or they're overwhelmed with meeting everyone's needs. If any of this speaks to you it may be time to talk with a professional for support. Asking for help is not a weakness; it is the bravest and strongest action you can take.
If you find yourself concerned about your parenting or how you think about or react to events in your life please reach out to talk.
If you find yourself in an emergency call 911 or the National Parent Helpline at 1-855-4A-PARENT (855-427-2736).