A bad day at work. Money worries. A fight with your partner. Even bad traffic when you’re running late. Life is full of big and small stresses. You may think your kids are too young or not mature enough to know that something is going on. But often, the opposite is true.
“Kids can be especially sensitive to their parents’ moods,” says Stephanie Smith, a licensed clinical psychologist in Erie, CO. “It doesn’t mean we, as parents, shouldn’t show our emotions -- but it does mean that we should be mindful of how we manage them.”
Your kids won’t always see you calm and happy. Stress, sadness, frustration, and other negative emotions are a normal part of life, and it’s good for children to know that, Smith says. But what’s most important is for parents to model how to find healthy ways to deal with stressful times.
Kids Catch Your Stress
Stress that builds up without relief can start to affect how you interact with your children and how they feel.
You might snap at your kids or spend less time with them. Ongoing stress, such as financial worries, can wipe out the patience and energy it takes to be a nurturing, engaged parent. Even when you’re with your kids, you might not be paying attention to them.
“You might not be able to set aside those worries to focus on playing a game, cooking together, or going outside, kicking a ball, or playing with the dog. These are the things that kids respond to and look forward to,” says clinical psychologist Paul J. Donahue, PhD.
Stress also makes it easier to create unhealthy family habits, like eating fast food because you don’t have the energy to cook. Researchers have found that children of parents who feel stressed -- because of health problems, financial strain, or other concerns -- eat fast food more often, exercise less, and are more likely to be obese.
When you do try to wind down, you might be tempted to choose unhealthy ways to feel better, like bingeing on ice cream or zoning out in front of the TV. Kids learn how to handle stress by watching their parents. When you lean on food, screens, or other bad habits, you’re communicating to your child that those are the best ways to relax.
Talk It Out, Have a Plan
Of course you can’t banish stress from your life. So how can you keep it from affecting your kids? Experts say the best thing to do is to be honest with them about how you’re feeling and talk about a healthy strategy you’re going to use to feel better.
Think about your approach to stress relief, and plan ahead for some healthy strategies to use when the pressure’s on. Instead of burying your head in your smartphone, try some exercise to burn off the day’s frustration. Rather than staying up late with the TV on, calm your mind with a good book so you can get sleepy and get to bed on time.
Your kids will notice the positive ways you’re choosing to ease stress. You can even ask for their help.
Smith says you can try something like: “I’m feeling irritable today because I had a tough day at work. Would you like to go on a bike ride with me after dinner? That always helps me feel better.” It’s also OK to let your kids know you need some alone time to read your book or go for a run because that relaxes you.
If you’re dealing with a long-term stressful situation, have brief, age-appropriate conversations with your kids about what’s going on. Reassure them about what you’re doing to make the situation better.
That shows your child that “people can go through hard times and be OK,” says Jamie Howard, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute.