Managing parenting stress and making time for self-care
Cutting back on activities, establishing routines and reducing screen time are some simple ways for busy parents to ease the pressures of family life
Exhausted and busy are probably the two most common adjectives used by parents to describe their day-to-day status. Photograph: iStock
We all want to be the best parents we can be for our children, but there are so many competing priorities it can be hard to keep a balance between the needs of our children, other family members, work commitments and our own needs.
Exhausted and busy are probably the two most common adjectives used by parents to describe their day-to-day status. Most parents I hear from describe a packed schedule of drops, pick-ups, rushed mealtimes, work, school, homework, sports, music, drama – the list goes on.
Against a backdrop of this relentless running around and often high stress levels due to work or financial pressures, the sense of overwhelm for families can be huge. Often, the first thing to go for parents is prioritising time for taking care of oneself, even though most know that it is a vital component in keeping things in balance.
This tendency to sideline our own needs and prioritise the needs of others is common to many in caring roles. Self-care may be something as simple as turning off the mobile phone and reading a book. It might be going for a walk, run or cycle, climbing a mountain or spending time by the sea. Self-care can also involve making time to talk to a trusted friend or family member who understands and gives that much needed support and encouragement, somebody to listen empathically and say “you are doing great”, getting a space to offload your thoughts and worries.
In dealing with the overwhelm, it can help greatly to think through ways to prevent the build-up of stress in the first place. In a recent example of a family who had maxed out on their schedule, the parents and children found themselves in a constant whirl of “hurry-up, we’re late”, “get your football boots/swimming gear/guitar/violin”. Other stresses on the family meant the parents coping capacity was already wearing thin and many of the interactions in the family were descending into arguments and upset.
Pare back on activities
As a practical measure, their first goal was to pare back on activities so that the parents and children could spend more unstructured time together as a group. They worked on paring back each of the children’s activities by a minimum of 25 per cent and prioritising the parents’ other commitments to ensure there were several slots within the week where the family could just ‘be’ without an agenda pressing in on them. The parents expressed an immediate sense of relief once they had come to this decision and felt empowered to take back control over what was most important for them as a family group. This automatically led to the family enjoying more down time and as a consequence the arguing reduced.
Interestingly, it also meant they became more physically active as a family, playing football together in the garden and spending more time in nature, with all the added physical and mental-health benefits this offered. For many, this simple recalibration of priorities may be all that is needed.
A further important component in reducing the sense of embattlement felt by families is to work on establishing positive routines and rules. Nobody wants to go back to the negative elements of old-style parenting but there are some merits in a system where no means no and parents feel empowered enough to hold the limits and rules for their children. For example, getting a clear and consistent morning time routine up and running can greatly reduce parent and child stress levels. This could involve sitting down together in advance to plan the routine (lists and picture scheduling are useful tools here) so that the main tasks – getting up, breakfast, brushing teeth, preparing schoolbag – are covered and any preparation time on the previous evening can be put in place.
It helps if the parent can tune into and problem-solve around what the main challenges are for their child, such as the transition from one activity to the next, and also tune into their own stresses such as worrying about being late for work, the traffic or clearing up after breakfast. For many families, screen time in the morning is a contentious issue and the cause of much argument. The rule in one family may be a complete ban on screen time before school and in another, 15 minutes of cartoons as a reward for the five-year-old once they have completed their morning tasks may be an essential part of the overall routine for the family where the parent has to focus on another child’s needs or tend to other tasks.
The core factor here is having a well-thought-through plan that helps all parties to stay calm and on track. This is similar for the other flash points of the day such as mealtimes or bed times and is essential when it comes to managing technology and screen time with children.
In a recent group discussion with parents on how best to manage technology, one mother shared a story of technology use having gotten out of control with her young teenagers and bravely admitted to “digital distraction” and high use of social media herself. She desperately wanted to take control of this situation and described how she did this by putting a box on the hall table and all family members agreeing a time when the phones and devices would be switched off and put in the box.
This started out at 10.30pm but eventually she was able to negotiate it back to 9.15pm, which she felt was a positive step in the right direction for her family. What was most striking was her determination to deal with this problem and as she described, her children knew she “was not for turning” on this issue. The by-product was improved sleep all round with better moods in the morning, her own included. Establishing good routines and positive rules within the family can be equated to self-care for parents, in that it can be a great way to keep stress at bay.
Most parents are in the same boat when it comes to parenting – trying to do our best to raise happy, confident children who will be resilient in an increasingly complex world. Staying connected and tuned in to our own needs for down time and support is as important as keeping in tune with our children’s needs.
Dr Eileen Brosnan is a social worker and senior trainer with the Parents Plus charity