Family stress can mean troublesome relationships or crises that create distress. Stressors can include conflict in the family, circumstances external to the family that affect family members or significant changes that make life difficult to manage. Distress can be short term, long term, easily resolved or even difficult to imagine getting past because it seems so overwhelming.
Some signals that family members are overwhelmed can be the inability to sleep or eat, loss of interest in activities that were previously enjoyed, persistent negativity, excessive discouragement or increased conflict in relationships.
A visit to the family doctor or a counsellor is a courageous first step to developing a better understanding about what's behind these signals and recognizing that something may be off track.
Different family developmental stages can present different types of stresses. Families with small children often experience caregiver overload or marital/couple problems with the demands of raising children. The teenage years can bring conflict as parents and teens negotiate independence – balancing good judgment with freedom to make one's own choices. Young adults leaving home can be a challenge as both parents and children develop new relationships.
Other stress factors
Mental or physical health issues can occur throughout the family lifecycle and often create distress for the person experiencing the illness. Distress is also a symptom for other family members who worry, take on more chores around the house or experience a loss of income. The term "sandwich generation" describes those parents who take care of children and aging parents at the same time. One of the primary concerns with this group is caregiver burnout. Research shows that women are still most often the primary caregiver. Personal time for caregivers is often put aside in the interest of looking after others and therefore women often experience stressors due to lack of self-care.
What is self-care?
Self-care is a balance of well-being where one feels able to manage and enjoy life. Usually this involves a balance among physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, economic, and social factors so that no one area of life has become central at the expense of all the other important factors for well-being. Parents sometimes recognize the importance of developing a balanced lifestyle when reminded that they are modelling a life path for the next generation.
We can develop coping strategies to handle challenging situations. Coping and self-care strategies can include:
- sharing chores at home to help achieve balance while modelling life skills for your children
- enjoying activities that offer comfort such as taking a hot bath, phoning a friend or getting absorbed in a movie
- eating, sleeping and exercising regularly and practicing smart money management
- taking time to enjoy your spouse's company or being on your own
- having one‒on‒one time with each of your family members
- cooking and eating meals with other family members
- scheduling family activities such as movies with discussion afterward or special board game nights
Aim to balance fun activities, household chores, working tasks and relaxing time together.
Develop problem solving skills
One of the easiest problem-solving skills is the principle that is expressed in the "Serenity Prayer" – to separate the things you can change from the things you can't. We have influence over some things in our lives and no influence in others – and it is important to let go of the things we can't change.
The problem is that sometimes we are so embroiled in our situation that we can't get a good perspective on our relationships or problems. That's where good friends or a counsellor can be helpful for talking things over.
Freeing children and parents from restrictive roles
Sometimes it is easy to get locked into a role like the "troublemaker child," or the "disciplining parent," or the "good child," or the "fun parent." In the end, everyone in the family loses out when someone's role has become too restrictive. Parents can practice looking beyond the most immediate behaviours and search for slight variations or differences from expected roles.
Then parents can strategically attend to the desired behaviours or reactions. If children are "seeking attention" then why not offer attention for positive contributions? It is much more difficult than it sounds to comment less on behaviours we don't want to encourage. It is a bit like planting a seed and waiting for the germination and growth with patience.
Other coping strategies
Learn some simple ways to diffuse conflict by using humour, side-stepping the issue temporarily or dealing with your own temper. These approaches can be most useful when teaching calmness and conflict resolution to children.
Understanding more about reasonable expectations for different developmental stages can be very helpful. Self-help books and parenting classes are useful to assist parents and children in developing problem-solving skills.
This article contains sourced content and was last published in 2020 as a part of Mental health support through the COVID-19 pandemic.