Stressors come in all kinds of forms: work and school pressures, relationships, health concerns, the Coronavirus, uncertainty about the future. Even changes that are generally positive can still be incredibly stressful, like gaining a family member or starting a new business. Left unchecked, stress can lead to a host of symptoms, including headaches, disrupted sleep, nausea, irritability, lack of focus, and poor impulse control. Tips for stress management are frequently repeated and generally well-known: Get some exercise! Talk with a friend! Breathe deeply! Get a massage!
But while most of us recognize at least a few of these symptoms from stressful periods in our own lives (and if you don’t, please teach the rest of us what your secret is!), stress isn’t exclusive to the adult world. Our children experience stress too. And while parents and children can often be high up on the list of one another’s stressors, we’re generally stuck with each other. So while it’s nice to talk about individual stress-busters, ways to help the whole family manage stress at once can be a lifesaver for parents and kids (and grandparents, stepparents, aunts and uncles, godparents, siblings, friends-who-function-as-family, and 32 flavors of cousins) to tackle their stress head-on. So here is a short list to help you on your way.
Create a tradition
When you think of traditions, you might think of holiday foods, first day of school photos, or the neighborhood block party that’s happened every Labor Day for the last 40 years. But traditions are, essentially, some kind of activity that is regular and predictable. It’s a fancy way of saying “routine.” If you read before going to bed? That’s a tradition. If you always make a point of yelling angrily at the Mad River when you cross it? That’s a tradition. Traditions and routines matter because they help kids (and adults) feel like the future is a little bit more predictable. So if you’re staying with friends to stay safe during a natural disaster, at least there’s still reading before bed to count on. Every bit of stability helps.
New traditions can mean formalizing something you do haphazardly anyway. If Wednesday means a trip to the library or the first day of school vacation involves eating pancakes in your pjs, that’s a tradition. Write ridiculous songs for birthdays. Start a game night. Invent a holiday. Just don’t let your traditions become a source of stress itself. If the regularity or specificity isn’t serving your family, let it go. Try something new instead.
Find a shared hobby
Getting involved in a productive hobby is often touted as a great way to manage stress, but in families that are already over-scheduled, the idea of adding more to the plate can feel overwhelming. The solution is to find something that the entire family can enjoy together, which is still a challenge. If one of you likes to play Call of Duty and the other prefers reading regency romance novels, there’s a chance one of you will like the other … but it’s not altogether likely. Better is to find something that’s new to everyone. You’re into painting and they’re all about Fortnite? Consider designing and building a treehouse together. You’ve got three super active family members and one with a bad knee? Swimming could fit the bill. Some folks in the family are aspiring globetrotters while others hate to leave the house? Borrow some international cookbooks and explore the world from the comfort of your kitchen. (There is very little more soothing than kneading dough.)
Get active together
Ah yes, the old “exercise” advice. Well, it’s here for a reason: physical activity really is good for stress management, so long as you’re doing it in a way that’s both physically and emotionally healthy. The same goes for kids of all ages, but to an even greater degree. So without creating stress about it, try to find ways to be active together. Some ideas include:
● Watching and trying some yoga and activity videos online. Check out GoNoodle for family-friendly content.
● Walking or biking for transportation. If you live in a neighborhood where you can get to the store, or the movies, or someplace else under your own power, do it!
● Hunt for something. Geocachingis a GPS treasure hunt. Or if you’re more interested in virtual finds, there are lots of great online hunts!
● Go places where being active is the fun part of being there. Hit the ice rink, skate park, or hiking trail and try things out.
● That shared hobby idea can go for physical activity too. Train for a 5k. Take up judo. Did you know there are junior roller derby leagues?
Keep in mind that some people thrive in a competitive environment, while others don’t. Think about that before jumping into any kind of formal sport.
Does that seem like a contradiction in terms? It’s really not. In today’s busy world, kids and adults have much of their lives planned down to the minute, and open-ended time is losing out. But downtime is critical for stress management, so the easiest solution is to formalize downtime by actually putting it on the schedule. Time for playing, reading, chilling, whatever. Children need downtime in order to deal with the stress of everyday life. Teens need downtime. You need downtime. So get that time on the calendar and plan for … absolutely nothing serious. Do whatever feels right at the time, even if that’s nothing at all.
Need some help? Family therapy is awesome.
If you feel like your family has been through some extra stressful stuff lately, or even if you just feel like you want to be doing a better job of handling stress as a family, seeing a therapist can be incredibly helpful. Family therapy isn’t exclusively for families that are dysfunctional. A professional can help provide guidance in a way that’s tailored to both the individuals in your family, and how you function as a unit.
Stress is never going to go away completely. And that’s a good thing.
Situations feel stressful because they’re challenging. And challenges can be incredibly helpful in getting us to grow. A tough school or work assignment can teach you new skills, while an argument with a loved one can help you look at your preconceptions from a different perspective. It’s when stress becomes toxic that it really starts to negatively impact our lives, physically as well as mentally and emotionally. The trick is to manage your stress before it gets to that point, both for you, and for your family.
So breathe deeply. Go for a walk. Get that massage. Get your kid a massage. And remember that you’re all in this together. Even if that’s a little stressful sometimes.