Stress is part of everyday life, and our bodies can have mental and physical reactions to the stress we feel. When we encounter an event or situation that our body deems as challenging or stressful, our brain responds by perceiving a threat. This response, in turn, initiates several hormonal and physiological changes, such as increased heart rate, feelings of nausea, or sweating.
Stress can appear in routine challenges such as when you are running late for a doctor’s appointment or are worrying about missing a deadline at work. Our relationships with others can also be a source of stress, such as when you have a disagreement with a loved one or feel guarded when meeting a new manager. Experiencing small amounts of manageable stress can be beneficial for an individual. Coping with manageable stress can help us deal with situations in a positive way and can help us build resiliency. However, when we encounter situations or events that make us feel very stressed or we experience several stressful situations at once, our responses can become counterproductive. Some examples of the negative impact of the stress response can include increased anxiety, verbal and motor skill challenges, and extreme emotional reactivity (Avero & Calvo, 1999).
Being a parent is, perhaps, the most important role we encounter in life; however, it can also be one of the most stress-producing roles. Getting the family ready to start the day on time, mediating sibling arguments, caring for restless infants, and encountering many other daily events and challenges can lead to parental stress. The various types of parental stress you experience can have an impact on your behavior and can, in turn, influence your child’s behavior and well-being (Neece et al., 2012; Neece, 2014; Pinquart, 2018). In fact, when children, even infants, recognize stress in their parents, they often have a response that can lead to behavioral challenges (Neece et al., 2012).
High parental stress has been shown to lead to several undesirable family situations including the following (Neece et al., 2012):
- Marriage challenges,
- Decreased physical and mental health,
- Increased parenting challenges, and
- Increased behavior challenges in children.
Research consistently shows that parenting stress and poor behavior in children often occur in a cycle (Neece et al., 2012; Neece, 2014; Pinquart, 2018). In other words, when children act out, these actions can increase the parents’ levels of stress, the parents react to the stress, and their reactions, then, influence the child’s behavioral issues. For parents, their child’s behavior can be the source of their parenting stress. On the other hand, poor behavior can be the child’s stress reaction to a parent who is visibly stressed.
Developmental Delays and Parental Stress
Parents of children who have exceptional needs often face additional challenges and report higher levels of stress than other parents (Neece, 2014). In addition, children who have cognitive developmental challenges are more likely to exhibit poor behavior, which can lead to increased parental stress (Neece et al., 2012). All families with children who have exceptional needs can experience more problems at home and less parental satisfaction when compared to other families (Neece, 2014). Often, the stressors that come with raising children who experience developmental delays can increase at a faster rate and often reoccur more frequently (Neece, 2014). For example, as a child with developmental delays nears school age, their parents may have more and different decisions to consider, such needing to collaborate with school personnel to ensure the child’s needs are met and identify associated school-support staff. Other times, parents may experience stress when they compare their child’s development to other children of the same age.
How to Address Your Stress and Your Child’s Behavior at The Same Time
Because the stress of parenting impacts the behavior of children and vice versa, approaching both issues at once may be a good option. Several studies have shown that, when parents are able to reduce their levels of stress, their child’s behavior problems also decrease (Neece et al., 2012). Improving your relationship with your child is one way to tackle parenting stress and behavioral issues at the same time. Acts of charity and kindness are often associated with stress reduction and improved behavior so consider finding a volunteer opportunity that you and your child can participate in together. Let your child know how they are helping someone else and how this effort is positive. In another example, try talking to your child about stressful moments after they happen, so you and your child have a better understanding of the situation and you, as the parent, know that your child understands the situation. Research has shown that, for parents of children who have developmental delays, using mindfulness-based stress-reduction tools have a substantially positive impact on these families (Neece, 2014). Some examples of mindfulness-based stress-reduction tools that you can implement follow.
Ways to Alleviate Parenting Stress
- Use meditation, practice yoga, or write in a journal.
- Engage in social connections, especially through parenting groups.
- Ensure you allot enough time to complete daily tasks. Research indicates that time pressure is one of the leading causes of parental stress.
- Get adequate sleep. Rest is a critical part of stress management. Having children can hinder getting a good night’s rest; however, parents may want to be mindful of the amount of rest they get. For example, you may want to establish and maintain bedtime or limit caffeine use for 8 hours before bedtime.
- Exercise. Establish exercise routines, if possible, to enhance your probability of continuing regular exercise. Get your heart rate up in ways you enjoy. Research shows that regular exercise increases your well-being and helps reduce your body’s reactions to stress.
Ways to Improve Behavior in Children
- Enroll in parenting-education courses. Studies reveal that parenting courses offer stress-reduction discussions and trainings, which can help participants reduce parental stress and other negative feelings.
- Do not tolerate or ignore poor behavior. Ignoring poor or unhealthy behavior can lead to you exhibiting a more severe reaction.
- Help your children learn emotional regulation. Have intentional, in-depth discussions with your child about the times when they should try to remain calm and explain how they can manage their emotions when they become stressed.
- Try to anticipate your child’s triggers. Identify what types of situations provoke your child and help them understand what is happening during these times and how to cope with these circumstances and their feelings.
Thrive Universal Parent Education Programs
Thrive programs offer developmentally age-appropriate, universal, parent-education programs in a web-based format. These programs are designed to empower parents and caregivers as they nurture children from the prenatal period until 18 years of age. Each self-paced parent-education program delivers knowledge, skills, and strategies that intend to bolster positive parenting practices, enhance stress management, and promote child physical health and well-being. Thrive parent-education programs are available online to military and civilian parents and caregivers at no cost.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention- Positive Parenting Tips
This resource provides information based on your child’s developmental stage and age. The resource can help parents understand what is normal and what to expect at each stage and provides parenting tips that parents can use to enhance their child’s development.
GoNoodle – Flow and Steady
GoNoodle uses technology to engage young children and help them learn about themselves and the world around them in a positive way. “Flow and Steady,” offers several videos and activities your child can use to build their mindfulness skills and understand their emotions.
National Parent Helpline – State Resources
The national Parent Hotline offers parenting resources that are available in different states, and these resources can be sorted by state.
Child Mind Institute – Behavior Problems
The Child Mind Institute aims to provide parents with the most current, relevant, and correct information possible. Their page titled, “Behavior Problems” provides information to help parents understand different aspects of their child’s behavior and offers several strategies that parents can use to manage their child’s behavior.
Avero, P., & Calvo, M. (1999). Emotional reactivity to social-evaluative stress: Gender differences in response systems concordance. Personality and Individual Differences, 27(1), 155–170. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0191-8869(98)00229-3
Neece, C. L. (2014). Mindfulness‐based stress reduction for parents of young children with developmental delays: Implications for parental mental health and child behavior problems. Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities, 27(2), 174-186. https://doi/10.1111/jar.12064
Neece, C. L., Green, S. A., & Baker, B. L. (2012). Parenting stress and child behavior problems: A transactional relationship across time. American Journal on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, 117(1), 48. https://doi.org/10.1352/1944-7558-117.1.48
Pinquart, M. (2018). Parenting stress in caregivers of children with chronic physical condition—A meta‐analysis. Stress and Health, 34(2), 197-207. https://doi.org/10.1002/smi.2780