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Mendo Lake Family Life

How to Manage Parent Stress

By Shannon Carpenter

I open the mail and find an unexpected bill for an eye exam. If there is one thing that wrecks a parent’s Zen, it’s unanticipated bills. This and other stressors eventually lead to parent burnout—and our kids are noticing. 

It’s the day-to-day stress that really gets to us. Job difficulties, marriage problems, and Dora not exploring. How about schedules? How many of us have to be at the soccer fields at the same time we have to be at the volleyball courts?

Don’t forget to make dinner. 

To be a parent is to be under pressure, and that can affect our mood. Personally, I become short-tempered and anxious when I’m stressed. I easily lose my patience and get hyper-focused on the next task. Yes, my kids notice. 

How does parental stress affect kids? The simplest explanation is that stress takes us away from our kids. To use a sports saying, we are not “giving a 110 percent.” The quality of our quality time is lessened. This can lead to kids feeling rejected; they may also exhibit low self-esteem, disruptive and aggressive behaviors, and social withdrawal. 

Fantastic! Now I’m stressed about my stress. 

Sometimes the affect of our stress is subtle and takes a while to notice, but other times it has more drastic effects: dropping grades; kids and parents self-medicating and using substances; increased conflict at home. 

These symptoms may be really evident in teens. Every parent knows the cliché: teenagers are argumentative. And, yes, that is true. But some of their behaviors may be the result of stress—ours and theirs. While we are worrying about their future and our own ability to guide them, they are dealing with high school politics, busy schedules, and college-entrance pressures. What’s more, they are also way more aware of what’s going on in the world than a lot of us Gen Xers were at their age. 

Their tsunami of stress collides with our hurricane of stress and conflict is inevitable. This isn’t good for anyone. 

To take care of your kids, you first have to take care of yourself. This advice seems counterintuitive, but it’s the best advice I can give. If you don’t take care of your mental health, and your stress, it’s going to become a problem. 

For fathers, stress can often manifest as anger, especially when we are taking care of toddlers. We are not as comfortable with that age group for a variety of reasons. We have never been encouraged, are rarely supported, and the literature for us is often condescending. None of this helps us manage our stress or our anger. 

You never want to parent from extreme highs or lows. That’s advice a parenting expert gave me 15 years ago, and it works. So I tell upset dads and parents to walk away for ten minutes. Put yourself in a time-out. 

Next, remember that you are more than a parent. You are a person with hobbies and interests. Ditch the parenting guilt, and take time to do something that only you enjoy. 

Now, what about the things that you can’t control, such as the unexpected bill or work invading your home space? Honestly, this is where a lot of us struggle. Look, I know that I’m a bit of a control freak. When something happens that I can’t fix, my stress gets the better of me. 

My support system really helps. I encourage you to build yours. Keep in mind that you may not always find your people in the parenting world. So you don’t necessarily have to be in a parenting group to get connected. Join a quilting circle, neighborhood watch, or a D&D club. Just find others with whom you feel comfortable sharing life’s burdens.

I have more advice to offer, but there’s not enough room to share it here. So read chapter four of my book, The Ultimate Stay-at-Home Dad (Penguin Life, 2021). It will teach you about the benefits of practicing mindfulness, being present when you are with your kids, surrounding yourself with positive reinforcement—and, of course, diet and exercise. But let’s be honest, “experts” always tell parents that running after toddlers can keep off extra weight. But my kid isn’t fast enough yet. 

Obviously, I use humor to help deal with my stress. 

But my best coping mechanism is self-care. I’ll say again the one piece of advice every parent needs to hear yet often fails to listen to: Take time to focus on yourself. Your kids will notice the difference. 

Shannon Carpenter is a professional humorist, co-host of The Dadhouse Pod, and the author of The Ultimate Stay-at-Home Dad Manual (Penguin, 2021).