Life can have moments when things get hectic and we get stressed and that is normal.
However, there are times when our stress levels peak and become unhealthy and we can struggle to function as mature adults especially towards our beloved children.
I have completely forgotten to attend one of my son's assemblies after I had spent days helping him rehearse! I've left one of my sons at the pool – admittedly I thought dad had him, and dad thought I had him! And I have to confess I once left a trolley full of shopping in the car park when my newborn baby became very distressed. So, I know a few things about parental stress.
Our world has changed in so many ways since I was mothering. Everything seems to have sped up in our global, digital world especially as our smart phones keep us unrelentingly connected and plugged in.
There is a big difference between experiencing normal stress as a parent living in a busy world and experiencing distress, or serious overwhelm, which is like skating on thin ice.
In a way, this is our brain struggling to manage too many things, in too short a time and it triggers our primitive brain, the amygdala, into fight or flight. Sadly, we can become used to feeling overwhelmed and incredibly stressed and not realise that it is becoming seriously worrying.
I have worked with people in this state who have missed stop signs, fallen asleep while driving a car and made some really poor choices around their children's safety.
The brain adapts to chronic stressors with either of two extremes:
- Numbness – listless, apathetic, unresponsive
- Hypervigilance – edgy, suspicious or overactive
We can simply get used to feeling really stressed … so how do you know if you are skating on thin ice?
We all have slightly different warning signs and being mindful of what yours may be can be helpful in identifying and then taking steps to manage high levels of stress.
I know when I'm there because I suddenly can't remember my PIN and I find it difficult to find my car in the car park.
Some common warning signs are:
- Scattered thinking
- Irrational outbursts and quick temper, shouting at the kids, lots of tears
- Exercise avoidance
- Unhealthy eating – yearning for high fat, high sugar foods
- Excessive cleaning – clearing out the fridge at 11.30 at night
- Excessive mess and chaos
- Excessive alcohol consumption – is the bottle really empty?
- Escapism with endless scrolling on your phone, Netflix binges or hiding in bed
- Racing heart, palpitations and panic attacks
- Insomnia or waking up and still feeling exhausted
- Withdrawal from normal activities and social interactions together with an irrational desire to run away.
It can be helpful to identify three main warning signs that may happen for you and be mindful when they are happening.
The next easy bit after identifying that you are skating on thin ice is to take action.
We all have different ways of filling our cup, of giving ourselves experiences and activities that quite simply make us feel better.
Self-care and self-compassion are not always easy for busy parents, particularly mums, because it can trigger guilt, which can then add to the original stress we were already experiencing.
However, we deserve to take care of ourselves as well as our children and it is healthy for our kids to see that we value ourselves enough to be kind to ourselves.
Filling your cup
There are lots of ways that we can return our overwhelmed minds and weary bodies back to a place of calmness and joy. These activities trigger positive brain chemicals which is why they can work so well.
- Dive into a good book, get creative – painting, drawing, designing, cooking for fun, gardening, sewing – the list is endless.
- Get outside – walk, ride a bike, have a picnic, take your kids to the park or the beach. Nature is a natural soother.
- Reconnect with those you love – meet for coffee, arrange a catch up, or simply call and say hello. A Facebook or Instagram post is not enough.
- Do something you love – laugh, sing loudly, dance badly or beautifully, go for a run, join a class and learn something new.
- Learn mindfulness by using guided relaxations or some of the fabulous sound relaxations, or maybe join a yoga, tai chi or meditation class.
- Nurture your body – get your hair done, have a massage or reflexology session, get a manicure or pedicure. Receiving some tenderness can help lift the spirits.
Sleep-deprived, worried parents often feel overwhelmed and tired. By keeping an eye on your warning signs, you may avoid the need to skate on thin ice and hopefully, avoid some of my parenting failures.
Maggie Dent is one of Australia's favourite parenting authors and educators with a particular interest in the early years, adolescence and resilience. She has recently released two of her most popular conferences, featuring some of her favourite parenting authors from Australia and overseas, on video at maggiedent.com