Are you worried about your child’s reaction to your stress?
While it’s true that not every child is sensitive to their parents’ stressful emotions, most are.
But in the heat of a stressful moment, when you feel overwhelmed and frazzled, it can be a challenge to keep your child’s reactions in the forefront of your mind. Becoming more aware of the signs of your and your child’s stress, can help minimize its impact.
Some Common Signs of Stressed-Out Moms and Dads
Facial expressions and tone of voice, such as an angry frown and knit brows, rolling of the eyes, flared nostrils, or a tense tone of voice, are signs of stress your child might find anxiety-producing.
Actions too, can send stress-signals. Every day activities performed in panic-mode, like the ones I list below, may appear frantic or erratic. Many children are sensitive to these unspoken signs of a parent’s stress:
How you answer the phone or door (or don’t answer!)
How quickly or slowly you walk or move around
The way in which you drive (pedal-to-the-metal, swerving lanes, etc.)
How you eat (rushing, gulping)
Your personal grooming or hygiene (not as “together” as usual)
A stressed mom might skip meals, wear outfits she normally wouldn’t—like mismatched, stained or dirty ones, or pretend she’s not home when the phone rings.
3 Common Signs Your Child Is Sensitive To Your Stress Signals
How do you know if your child is picking up on your stress? These three common signs are easy to discern.
- Your child appears serious, deep in thought, and/or they try to gauge your mood
- They act out, trying to turn the attention back onto them
- They ask probing questions trying to figure out if something “bad” is happening (Is grandma okay? Are you and Dad fighting?)
Helping Your Child And Yourself Deal With Your Stress
If you believe your child is picking up on your stress signals, there are steps you can take to minimize the impact.
Explain Why You Are Stressed
Verbalize to your child why you are sending out stress signals. Taking responsibility for your actions and feelings can bring relief to a worried child. For example, you might say something like: Mommy feels stressed because she is super-busy at work and forgot to eat healthy today.
Reassure Your Child That The Stress Is Not Their Fault
Reassure your child that you are not stressed or unhappy because of them.* Whether or not issues with your child are causing your stress, you don’t have to explain the source of stress if you feel it’s inappropriate or could cause your child to worry. Just say it has nothing to do with them. In some situations you might feel it is a good idea to tell your child the source of your stress. Whatever you choose, be as truthful as possible.
For example, if you’re stressed because of your child’s learning issues but you also didn’t sleep well last night, it’s okay to only reveal that you are stressed because of lack of sleep. Just don’t mention that he is also causing your stress. If your stress has nothing to do with your child, reassure him by telling him the source of the stress in a way that is appropriate for his age.
Talk When You Are Both Calm
Talk to your child when you are both in a “good place” emotionally, when both of you are regulated. Remember: When you are having a stressed-out response to a situation, your main goal should be returning to your calm center.
In chapter six of my new book, The Parent-Child Dance, you’ll find insights into stress, self-acceptance and how to take care of your needs.
For help finding your way, you can begin by developing your own self-care list to use either in stressful moments or to preempt them! You may want to see some of my suggestions for self-care.
You may also take some deep breaths, which can help you regulate. In this video I discuss the importance of core-breathing.
Be The Adult
Verbally affirm to your child that you are the adult and that you will work out whatever problem you are dealing with. Say clearly: I am the mom and the grownup, and I will always take care of you. You do not need to take care of me!
Don’t Be Too Hard On Yourself
Remind yourself that everyone is bound to get stressed sometime or other. Stress can be a momentary episode or it can linger longer, if you are going through a hard time such as a job loss, difficult family situation, or illness. Being aware of the effect that stress is having on your emotional and physical health as well as the health of your child is a great first step to lessening the stress.
Also, it is important to accept that you will have stressful moments in life, moments where you feel and act stressed-out. Understand that these moments are temporary and that they don’t define you as a person. Beating yourself up with guilt isn’t healthy.
*There are exceptions and during these times it may be important for your child to see that you “mean business”. This is important particularly when safety is an issue. I recently spoke to a parent whose young child has been engaged in behaviors that are dangerous to herself or others. She tried to push her younger sibling out in the street, she threw a dinner knife at someone, and also tried to harm herself
In cases like this it is actually helpful to show that you are stressed, even if you aren’t all that stressed, using a “take-charge”, even angry voice. In dangerous situations, this voice will help you intervene quickly and effectively to prevent injury.