The day started well. Baby Sue nursed and gurgled happily. Three-year-old Thomas ate breakfast without fussing. Mom hummed while she worked. As morning progressed a series of events changed the tenor of the day. Mom got a disturbing phone call. The hot water heater sprung a leak. Dad's flight was delayed and he wouldn't be home till late evening.
With each successive unexpected situation Mom's frustration grew. She became impatient. Her voice took on an edge. Thomas began to whine and pull at her leg. Baby Sue started crying. Mom's mood worsened. Where once there was peace, chaos now reigned.
Parents and teachers know that their bad days turn out to be the children's bad days. They recognize that their feelings are reflected in the children's behavior. While a pleasant day can turn sour, the good news is that difficult days can become positive.
Parental stress, to the degree that it affects their children's behavior, is usually situational. Once the parent calms, the children quickly respond. Recent research conducted at Columbia University and the New York State Psychiatric Institute in Manhattan, however, showed that on-going depression in mothers strongly affects the daily behavior in their children. Over a three-month period the children of mothers who were treated for their depression showed improved behavior and mental health. Children of mothers who went untreated had an increase in difficult behaviors and psychiatric problems. From this research it could be hypothesized that any long-term untreated mood disorder in parents adversely affects the mental health and behavior of their offspring.
When a downward spiral to the day starts, it isn't easy to reverse it. Nonetheless, steps can be taken to alleviate both situational bad days and the on-going effects that more serious and pervasive moods have on children.
One of the best antidotes for stress is breathing. When you notice your frustration rising, take a few deep breaths in through your nose and exhale through your mouth.
A glass of cool water shifts the body chemistry just enough that the nerves begin to soothe.
Pile young children in the stroller and take a brisk walk through the neighborhood. With older children make the walk a scavenger hunt. Before leaving the house ask them to look for three or four interesting things to report about after returning home. Suggest that the walk itself be a quiet time.
Sometimes it's okay to turn on the TV or a DVD for the kids so that you can have a few minutes to pull yourself together. Use the time to read or just sit. Take a mini-vacation. Visualize a spot that feels peaceful. Imagine how it would feel if you were there. This can be as quick or as long an exercise as you choose. When you bring yourself back, you will bring some of the pleasant feelings just experienced.
Often parents develop a network of friends they can call when needing to let off steam. Calls need not become long conversations. Just letting someone know you're having a bad day helps. Telling someone your list of annoyances can lessen the stress. Sometimes they even begin to sound humorous.
Even very young children respond if you say, "Today isn't very happy. Let's work together and turn it around." Offer a suggestion such as sitting and reading a story or playing a game together. Keep the interaction short so that the whole experience is positive.
These suggestions work well for situational bad days and moods. If you feel depressed, anxious, or have mood swings regularly, speak to your physician. Even if you think you know the reason behind the feelings, it's best to talk to a medical person. He or she will guide you toward treatment for the condition. When parents understand that their pervasive moods can profoundly affect their children, they are more likely to seek help.
Just like the story of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, everyone has a bad day sometimes. No one likes them. Taking the steps to turn those days around means that when bedtime comes, children and parents alike sleep better and look forward to a new day.