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A problem shared… How stress can affect the whole family

Whether it’s the morning rush, as you try to get everyone out of the door, or the evening squeeze of fitting everything in before bed, family routine can be stressful. Add to that career, financial or personal strains, and it’s understandable that parents are feeling the pressure. But what’s the effect of all this stress on our children, and how can we help ease the emotional load?


According to a survey conducted by the American Psychological Association, increasing numbers of parents report that stress is affecting their mental and physical health. But what is perhaps most concerning is that 46% of parents surveyed reported losing patience with their children as a result.


Of course we all have our limits – and our children will push them whenever they can – but when does stress in our lives become a problem for the whole family? We may do our best to shield our children from the pressures we’re facing, but whether it’s an overheard conversation after bedtime, or just the tension in our voices, children are incredibly perceptive.


If a child feels anxious or worried, they may internalise their feelings – making it hard for parents to recognise the effects of their stress. But the telltale signs will be there. They may misbehave more, or become clingier than usual. There will be physical symptoms too, including headaches, weight loss or weight gain.


Any emotional disruption at home can spill into other areas of their life, and the symptoms of stress aren’t conducive to effective learning. From disrupted sleep to inability to concentrate, the transference of stress from parents can have a direct bearing on their child’s education.


But isn’t this just another thing for parents to worry and chastise themselves about? It’s important to remember that everyone feels stressed at different points in their lives, and it’s a normal – sometimes even helpful – reaction to challenging situations. In fact, researchers have found that the right kind of stress, in small doses, can boost motivation, build resilience and promote stronger interpersonal bonds. So how do you keep the negative effects of stress in check, and show your children how to effectively manage the stressful times that are inevitably to come?


The first trick is to recognise your triggers and know the signs of stress. Whether it’s as a result of time or money pressures, issues at work or problems at home, stress manifests itself in a range of behavioural, physical and emotional ways. For some, stress comes in the form of heart palpitations and racing thoughts. Others may lose their appetite or have trouble remembering things. You may not be able to avoid your stress triggers, but knowing what stress feels like for you will allow you to act quickly to manage it.


Anticipating when your child is likely to feel stressed is vital too. In recent years, there’s been a sharp rise in exam-related anxiety – some psychologists even report a significant downturn in patient numbers once GCSEs are over. So even though you will have your own hopes and aspirations for your child, try not to add too much pressure to the system. And if you see that stress is getting out of hand, take steps to support your child through it.


When it comes to dealing with stress in your own life, the most effective thing you can do is be honest and talk about your feelings. You don’t need to share all the details, but simply explaining to your child that you’re feeling stressed – and that it’s ok to feel that way – will not only help them understand that it’s nothing to worry about, but will also set a good example for how to cope with stress in the future.


As a parent, you probably already feel under incredible pressure, both from peers and from yourself. So make time to be kind to yourself, to talk to others and share your feelings. Building a support network is something we feel strongly about at Figtree – and we hope this month’s top tips will help ease the load a little more.

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