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The Informed Parent

A New Look At Family Stress

by Carolyn Warnemuende, M.S.
Published on Jun. 04, 2007

As is often the case, current research validates what many parents and educators already suspected or knew. In March 2007, the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine published the results of a study finding that children living in families undergoing stress have more fevers and associated illnesses than other children.

Dr. Mary Caserta, senior investigator for the study and associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York, stated, "I figured families under stress might think their children were sick more often when they actually weren't, but fevers are not subjective. The kids living with chronic stress in their families really were sick more often."

Aware parents know the toll stress takes on their own lives. They may worry about how that toll affects their kids. Sleep disturbance, excessive crying, whining, clinginess, or withdrawing can occur in stressed youngsters. Some children become sick.

Understanding that children are not immune to family stress means that parents need to take steps toward managing their own and teaching children the tools to handle theirs.

What To Do

Some family stresses are situational. The death of a loved one, the loss of a job, or a move can fall into this category. The stress may be intense. Then the family adjusts, and life moves on. Other stresses are chronic. These can include prolonged illness, continual job dissatisfaction, or constant financial worries. When resolution to these stressors seems impossible the whole family feels the effects.

For everyone's physical and mental health daily steps are required for stress relief. While they sound simple, they are not easy. The last thing people experiencing ongoing stress feel they have the time or energy for would be self-care. With firm evidence that parental stress affects children's health, it is imperative to make stress reduction a family priority.

Take A Walk

A number of studies has shown that a daily short, brisk walk relieves stress and may lower blood pressure and the risk of heart attacks. Walking a half hour each day is ideal. Just ten minutes of walking can have a positive effect. Make this an individual or family event. If the children participate, the walk will probably not be brisk. It can be a time for observing the environment. Listen to the birds or the sounds of the city. Notice the flowers. Pay attention to the smells of nature or the community. Talk about what you observe. A walk separates you from the stressful events.

Breathe Consciously

Since breathing is automatic, you probably rarely pay attention to it. However, when focusing on breathing, you may notice quick or shallow breaths. Make a conscious effort to slow and deepen the breath. Feel the air entering and leaving your nostrils. Giving the body more oxygen helps to relieve stress. When you focus on your breathing you are not obsessing about your stress-filled life.

You Are What You Eat

When stressed, we often reach for sweets or junk food. Too much concentrated sugar may give an initial high. Then our bodies move to a rapid dip in energy. A better choice is eating some nuts, whole grain cereal, a piece of cheese, or some sliced vegetables or fruit. Keep healthy snacks readily available. Pre-slice vegetables and keep them in the refrigerator. Have portions of nuts or cereal pre-measured into baggies. We tend to snack on the handiest thing possible. Make healthy choices handy. When parents model healthy eating practices, children follow suit.


Humor breaks up stress. Rent a funny movie or watch your favorite TV comedy. Read a book with your children that they find funny. Hearing them laugh often evokes laughter in you. Ask them to tell you a joke. Even very young children think their own jokes are hilarious. Their enthusiasm heightens your own. Children laugh as many as 300 times a day. Adults do well if they laugh 10 times a day. Take a cue from the kids and find the humor in life. Even if you have to fake it, take a situation that you know should be funny and force a laugh. Practice helps us recognize humor when we see it.


Turn on your favorite radio station or CD and sing along. Your pitch doesn't have to be perfect. The point is to distract you from stressful thoughts. Singing, like walking and laughing, releases calming hormones. When people sing wholeheartedly, they move. Let your body sway or bob your head in time to the music. Moving releases muscle tension. Children love to sing. Put on their favorite CD and sing along with them. They often laugh when they sing. This may make you laugh, too. Think how much stress you might release when you sing and laugh at the same time!

Take Time To Quiet Your Mind

Whether you call it meditation, prayer, or just quiet time, find a period each day to sit with yourself. Do not think about your problems. It is a time of mindful rest. If your mind goes crazy with thoughts, focus on a piece of beautiful music, a picture that captivates you, or a flower or tree. When your attention wanders, bring it back to your object of focus. You might want to create a mantra--a meaningful phrase--to repeat to yourself. Something like "I am at peace" or "I am filled with life" works. You may like the universal sound of "Om." Some people use a phrase from their spiritual belief. The purpose is to focus the mind on the sound. Wise parents teach their children the tools of focusing the mind. When you include children in a quiet time practice, you are giving them an invaluable life tool.

Express Gratitude

When you are feeling highly stressed, probably the last thing you can see is the good in the situation or in your life. Nonetheless, in anything you may be facing, there is a ray of light, no matter how small. In a chronically stressful situation, numerous events occur for which one can be grateful. The challenge is to look for them. Notice when someone offers his or her love or caring. Watch your children at play. Pay attention to the beauty in nature. If nothing else, recognize that the sun faithfully rises and sets each day. Offer gratitude either silently or to another as often as possible. Seeking and seeing the positives in life raises our awareness so that we see more. The more we are able to focus on what works in life, the less we may be consumed by stress.

If you are like me one thinks daily life is too busy to fit in these practices. Days go by when you will actually forget about using them. Then a day will come when, for the sanity of you and your family, it is imperative to resume these practices. If too many new things are attempted at once, you sabotage the success. Choose a practice that appeals to you and commit to doing it for a week. If you can do it for three weeks, it will become a habit. Research shows that it takes 21 days to create a habit. One day when finding yourself facing life's stresses, it becomes obvious that you are handling them differently because you are habitually using these tools.

Taking a daily walk, breathing consciously, eating wisely, laughing, singing, quieting the mind, and expressing gratitude will not change external stressors. They will change your view of them. When we approach life from a more relaxed perspective our vision  is greater. We see solutions that may not have been apparent before. Ideas emerge. We become more objective. We are open to suggestions.

Sometimes family stress is so great that self-care is not enough. The guidance of a medical person or counselor is required. Talk to your pediatrician. He or she can offer assistance or refer you to someone who can.

The recognition that family stress does, indeed, affect our children assists us in understanding the necessity of handling it in a proactive and positive way. It helps us recognize the importance of teaching our children ways of dealing with stress. Less stress means greater health. Healthy children learn better, have stronger social relationships and feel better about themselves.

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