Parenting Stress Cycles [Part 1]Mar 16, 2023
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I want to let you in on a little secret. You don’t yell because there’s something wrong with you (or your kids). You yell as a response to stress and what your brain perceives as a threatening situation.
In this episode, I’m talking about the stress cycle - what it looks like, why it happens and how it shows up in your parenting.
Before we get into the details, I want you to first imagine walking your dog at night and seeing a pack of coyotes. They start chasing you. Your brain activates the stress response, quickly assesses the threat and decides that you should RUN.
You get back home, come in and close the door. You are technically safe, but your body doesn’t know that yet. It still has all of the stress juice running through your system.
Once you are inside and safe, it’s time to deal with the stress that has accumulated in your body. You do that by getting your breath back, telling someone what happened, getting a hug, shaking, crying. Stress cycle complete. YAY!
Now imagine that instead you come inside, but before you get a chance to deal with the stress juice, there is a new stressor. You walk into the house and your kids are arguing and your husband is yelling at them. Then you head to the kitchen and notice the dishes piled in the sink and there isn’t any meat thawed for dinner. Stressful situations keep popping up and the stress juice continues building up inside you.
2 key parts of the stress cycle
Notice that there are two parts of the story above: the actual threat of the coyotes and what happens after.
The stressor is the external situation that is happening around you. This can look like your child screaming, crying, being aggressive, arguing with you, peppering you with questions, blaming you for things, etc.
The stress response.
This is the stress juice. It’s a sort of chemical cocktail of hormones and neurochemicals that course through your body and create your stress response.
And it’s not a bad thing. It helps us respond to our environment and keep ourselves safe.
But it’s not healthy for us to live in a state of chronic stress. When stress juice builds up in you and isn’t released, it can make you more reactive, less effective and clouds your thinking.
The problem many parents face is that we are constantly surrounded by stressors, but we don't give ourselves a chance to release the stress juice and reset.
Sometimes, we don’t even realize that stress is building up inside of us. We think we’re handling things well until something unexpectedly sends us over the edge.
Parenting stress cycles
Think about some of the stressors above. If you were out in the world and another adult was screaming at you or being aggressive toward you, it would likely mean that you are in a threatening situation and that you need to do something to protect yourself.
So when your kid is screaming, crying or complaining, your brain can’t tell the difference. It thinks you’re being attacked, and your stress response is activated.
Aggressive behavior isn’t the only thing that triggers us, though. You might also notice yourself reacting to things like dilly dallying, rudeness, bad grades or your kid just being grumpy.
These behaviors activate us because we feel we’re being threatened not physically, but socially. As a community-based species, we fear rejection from others.
The type of threat might be different, but your stress response works the same way.
The cycle usually looks something like this:
Behavior → Reaction → Guilt → Nothing Changes → Same Behavior → Reaction → Guilt
3 ways to get out of the parenting stress cycle
There are a couple of places where we can interrupt the parenting stress cycle.
#1: Decrease the stressors
One of the best ways to create less misbehavior (and therefore fewer stressors) is to teach your kids better ways to deal with their feelings. To give them the tools to know what they’re feeling, how to talk about those feelings and what to do with their feelings in ways that don’t cause problems.
Creating routines and setting better limits also decrease stressors by removing some of the friction around regular, everyday things.
#2: Deal with your stress juice
The more frequently you reset your stress juice, the less it builds up over time. This is where the Pause Break and Calm Mama Break come in. Think of it as stress hygiene.
#3: Reframing behavior
Often we add meaning to a behavior, and this creates even more stress. We regret not doing things differently, feel fear around what the behavior means for our kid’s future or look for someone to blame.
If you can think about the behavior differently, you will feel less stressed about it.
This week, I want you to practice noticing when you are in a stress cycle. And instead of judging yourself for it, get curious about why you got so stressed in the first place. Noticing is step 1. Next week, we’ll get into more tools on how to break out of your stress cycle.
- How stress shows up and why we feel activated even if we’re not actually in danger
- What the parenting stress cycle is and how to know if you’re in one
- 3 ways to get out of the stress cycle
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