The Mask

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Being a person is stressful. Being a parent multiplies that stress by quite a bit. Being a child, in a family full of people experiencing stress? Now that’s hard.

I work with families who are under stress from all sides. In addition to the stuff that’s native to being a parent—keeping the kids safe, putting them to bed, figuring out what to do when they pound each other with wooden blocks—there may be intergenerational poverty, even homelessness; addiction issues, mental health issues, lack of transportation, unemployment, chronic illness, food insecurity…the list really goes on. Each of these stressors compounds the other, and it’s all connected.

Stress management is understandably an important skill for parents to practice, and to pass on to children. How does this work? There’s the adage about how, when a plane is going down, we have to strap on our own mask before helping anyone else. Going further, we have to keep in mind that children pick up on all of our signals, especially the ones we don’t realize we’re giving out. So the best way to help kids deal with stress is to deal with our own. Once we’re able to do so, we can pass these skills along. All of these methods are surprisingly simple. And backed by science!

  • Breathing. It’s pretty important. Oxygen to the brain and all that. Three slow, deep breaths are usually enough to give us what we need to handle what’s happening in the moment. Why is it so hard, when we’re feeling overwhelmed, to take the time to do it? I can’t answer that. But it gets easier with practice. Have the kids do it with you.
  • The Counting Method. Counting slowly from one to ten can kick the left brain into gear.
  • Water. Literally taking a drink of water will help flush out the stress hormones.
  • You can always try going outside.
  • Anticipating Events. This is a hard one for me. Even though I know that thinking about the possible outcomes and planning for them is better in every way, I would rather not go there. Maybe if I ignore the problem it will stop existing. Strangely, it usually doesn’t work that way. And of all these methods, knowing what will happen next is probably most important for kids. Having consistent, predictable routines alleviates anxiety and, incidentally, eliminates unnecessary choices that make kids feel overwhelmed. Good for us, too.