Parenting is not for the faint of heart. And while Facebook can fool us into thinking there are some families whose lives are nothing but color-coordinated bliss, it’s simply not true. We all struggle to communicate, live out our priorities, manage our worries and just get along.
One of the things my family grapples with is keeping stress in check. My husband and I both have careers, and we also have three kids who keep getting busier with school, friends and activities. It can be difficult to know where healthy busy-ness ends and complete chaos begins.
In fact, a 2013 American Psychological Association poll revealed that 31% of teens surveyed feel their stress increased in the past year. Concerningly, 42% said they either are not doing enough to manage their stress or they are not sure if they are doing enough to manage it.
As we dive head-first into the school year, how do we, as parents, manage our own stress while simultaneously helping our kids keep up their own good mental health?
Make use of the executive committee
As our kids age, our roles as parents change. We become less hands-on workers and more management specialists. And anyone who’s ever been a manager knows that to do the job well, one must know the organization’s goals, purpose and values.
When I work with families, one of the first things I suggest is for mom and dad (or whoever makes up the “executive committee”) to spend time outlining goals and priorities for the family.
Maybe it’s religious activities, physical exercise, artistic pursuits or dog training. It doesn’t matter what your family values are, but it is important to be clear about what is most important to you. Once you’ve identified your priorities (and hopefully written them down in several places!), it’s easier to make decisions about how to spend your family’s precious time and energy.
Ask your kids what they think
It may seem silly, but sometimes I forget to ask my kids what’s important to them. Questions like: “How do you feel about your piano lessons these days?” and “Is the swim team still something you enjoy?” are crucial to helping your kids maintain good mental health.
As our children develop their own interests and passions, we should be mindful of keeping them in the loop when it comes to setting up schedules.
Of course the “executive committee” will make the final decisions when it comes to scheduling, but keeping our kids involved in planning helps keep them engaged and (hopefully) happy with how things are going at home.
Carve out some sacred space
No matter how good we are at planning, prioritizing and communicating, there will be times when life gets overwhelming for your family members. It’s important to be aware of our own stress levels. And part of our job as parents is to help our kids monitor their own levels of stress, as well.
One strategy for managing stress is to pick one time per week that is a “sacred”—non-negotiable time to just be a family.
Maybe it’s Thursday morning breakfast or Friday evening pizza. You can use this time in lots of ways: to simply sit and talk, play a game you wouldn’t normally have time for, try a new activity that challenges everyone’s comfort zones (rock climbing, anyone?).
The main goal of this “sacred space” is to reconnect, lower overall family stress and take a break from the fast-paced life we all seem to be living these days.
Remember what’s important
I don’t consider myself a dramatic person, but good grief, I have a lot of drama in my life. The opportunities to freak out, get upset and play into the drama of life are endless.
But guess what? It doesn’t do anything at all to improve our own, or our family’s mental health. In fact, high levels of stress can do a lot of harm, especially over the long haul.
Do your best to fight the drama and keep things in perspective. After all, the things in life that really matter—satisfying relationships with our partner and our children, and good physical and mental health—are much more interesting things on which to focus our limited energies and time.
For additional tips and resources on school, work and family, visit the American Psychological Association’s Psychology Help Center.
Dr. Stephanie Smith is a licensed psychologist in Colorado and member of the American Psychological Association (APA). This resource is made possible through a partnership between APA and National PTA to educate parents and teachers about behavioral health and emotional well-being.