Stress, Parenting and Relationships: How Are They Connected and What Can We Do About That Link?

A couple of years ago, the research firm, Harris Interactive, reported that money, sleep issues, and over-scheduling are major hassles for Americans, parents in particular.

The respondents noted an increase in stress levels compared to just 2 years earlier, with parents (more precisely, people living with children in their households) being likelier to report a lot of stress than those without kids at home. Plus, of the top 10 issues studied (e.g., problems with work, your boss or colleagues), parents grappled with those challenges more—sometimes markedly more—than their childless counterparts.

It comes as no surprise to parents that we’re more stressed, and more impacted by issues like over-scheduling, than non-parents or empty nesters. In fact, a 2010 report by the American Psychological Association (APA) concluded that, in general, parents are “living with stress levels that exceed their definition of healthy,” while a third of parents believe their stress is “extreme.”

What does all of this have to do with our relationships with our life partners? For one thing, stress is contagious; meaning, even if we’re not the ones stressed out, but our spouses are, their “tension spillover” (a phrase used by sociologists who study marriage dynamics), affects us both individually and in relationship with our beloveds.

According to the APA, stress also impacts our kids. While we’d like to think we’re shielding them from our anxiety, 91% say they know we’re stressed by studying our behavior: primarily, our yelling, our arguments with other household members, and our declarations that we’re too busy for them.

Wait, there’s more: Not only do our children notice we’re tense; they suffer from secondhand stress. A whopping 39% said they feel sad, the same percentage feels worried, while close to a third gets frustrated, when their parents are stressed.

It’s common for us to think of stress as a deeply personal issue—one we’re supposed to handle on our own—yet, the truth is, it’s also a relationship and family issue.

So what do we do? Child Expert, Dr. Michele Borba, has come up with some really great ways to, as she says, “put the lid on parent stress.” Here are 4 quickies from her toolbox:
1) Take a short break, even 5 minutes will do, and do something relaxing;
2) Use what Borba refers to as “calm talk” (i.e., uttering calming phrases to yourself to lower the internal volume);
3) Stop what you’re doing and take a deep breath;
4) Imagine something calming, like ocean waves or listening to music, or whatever you find personally soothing.

I agree that, as is true for our kids, it’s important for parents to learn effective ways to self-soothe. We also need to develop strategies to remain supportive partners and sounding boards, yet resist the impulse to “spray our anxiety” on our spouses, as Family Coach, David Code aptly puts it. Plus, we’d do well to figure out how to not absorb each other’s stress.

How can we manage the impact of stress on our relationships, while still communicating with our mates about the strain we’re feeling?

My own Relationship Coach, David Wikander, and his wife, Tracy, have devised a simple way to help couples share the tension they’re feeling, while limiting the negative impact on the receiving spouse. In other words, their tool, which my wife and I call the Basket Exercise, encourages us to communicate without unloading on our mates.

Let’s say, for example, that I have a bunch of stressful stuff I want to tell J. When we use Wikander’s technique, we get a basket, or any container, and put it between us. The idea is for me to direct what I want to share into the basket, instead of at my wife.

As odd as it sounds, this simple gesture of aiming my tension at an inanimate object has a positive impact on both of us. On my end, it keeps me from handing my stress over to J, while giving me somewhere else, somewhere neutral, to put it; for her, it creates enough distance from what I’m saying that she can be supportive without internalizing my issues, complaints or feelings.

Stress diffused; secondhand stress avoided.

Not up for talking to a basket? Consider chatting with your spouse about what you can do together to support each other to share your stress, while limiting its spillover effect on your kids and your relationship.

After all, as spouses and parents, our stress isn’t just ours anymore; it belongs to our relationships and our families, too, and it’s in all of our interests to find ways to decrease its impact and its reach.

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