Are Your Kids Driving You Crazy? Reducing Summer Stress

Reducing Summer Stress

By Katherine L. Poehnert, M.Ed.Psych. CEC

Girl with pigtailsSchool is finally out, and most of us are experiencing a time of transition, where schedules are changing, and routines are disrupted. Many parents may begin to get palpitations at the very thought of the summer stretching endlessly ahead! Therefore, it is important to look at some approaches to reducing the anxiety and stress of the season.

Stress and anxiety can be either healthy or unhealthy. They can motivate us to grow, or can stop us cold. In essence, it is actually our attitudes and perceptions that determine how we feel, and then how we behave. It is not necessarily our children, (or our spouse, or boss, or mother-in-law (!)) who “cause” us to feel stress. Rather, it is what their behaviors mean to us that determine how we feel and respond. Knowing that this is actually a choice, and therefore within our control can be empowering. However, it is a very difficult concept for most of us to accept. Let’s face it- it is easier to see others, particularly our children, as the “cause” of our stress- it takes responsibility off of us! Yes, our children’s actions do sometimes annoy, provoke anger, or increase our anxiety levels, but we can “choose” how we feel, and regulate how we respond to those feelings, even though most of us don’t think this is possible. If it were the triggering behavior of others that “caused” stress, then wouldn’t we all respond in the same manner to the same behaviors? We all know this is not the case.

It really comes down to our “self-talk” or inner dialogue. Each of us has constant chatter running through our heads. The problem is that most of us have developed patterns of self-talk that are negative and self-defeating, and therefore lead to negative and self-defeating behavior. These patterns are automatic, and most of the time we are not even aware of our internal dialogue. There are generally two types of unhealthy self-talk: Catastrophizing—when we negatively project present behavior or situations into the future; setting ourselves up for a spiraling level of stress/anxiety and worry. When we say to ourselves, upon receiving our son’s final report card containing several low grades- “Johnny will never get into college at this rate”, we are catastrophizing. How Johnny does in fourth grade will probably have very little to do with his performance eight years later! If we continue to tell our selves this, and allow it to spiral, we may become angry, fearful, and anxiety ridden- emotions that will not be beneficial in helping us look at the situation with a clear head, and attempt to address it.

Secondly, we need to stop “shoulding” on our children and ourselves. If we believe Suzie “should” know how to swim when she is five, and she doesn’t know how to swim, we will most likely feel some stress and anxiety- the degree of which is determined by the vigor of our “should”. A “should” for our self or for someone else is really, in a sense, often a pre-meditated resentment, and can lead therefore to anger, guilt, and anxiety.

There is good news! We can change our self-talk, which will change our feelings, and consequently our behavior. When we find ourselves catastrophizing (and awareness is the first step) we can recognize what is happening, and consciously change our inner dialogue. Instead of catastrophizing over Johnnie’s grades, we can tell ourselves “Johnny did the best he could at the time (otherwise he would have done better)…I have confidence that with help he will improve.” Most catastrophizing is fear based, and much of our F.E.A.R. is False Evidence Appearing Real. There is no immediate evidence that Johnny won’t go to college, or even that he won’t do better next year, --that fear and anxiety are created in our heads by our thoughts. Sometimes, it helps to ask ourselves if the situation at hand is really all that critical in the overall scope of things- will this be that important next week? Next month? Next year? This helps to put things into perspective, so we can let go and move ahead.

Instead of “shoulding”, we can change our “shoulds” to “coulds”. This sounds subtle, but is actually quite powerful. Instead of “shoulding” we can say “Suzy can learn to swim” or “it would be great if Suzie could learn to swim” or “it would ease my mind if Suzie could learn to swim…and I know she will eventually learn.” This allows for a lower anxiety level, which makes it easier to address this issue. A “should” that isn’t met produces a very different feeling than an “I would like it if…” that isn’t met.

It is clear that our attitudes and perceptions affect our stress levels. They are often challenging to change, but if we believe that we can’t…we won’t! In Essence, our kids may not be driving us crazy, we may be driving ourselves crazy!

girl in cornerWhile summertime can be a time of relaxation and freedom for some, it can also be a time of added stress in terms of scheduling—particularly for parents who work outside of the home. For those who are home with their children, the stress of seeing them twenty-four/seven can certainly be a strain! The bottom line is that we need to see ourselves as the master of our day, week, or month; not the victim. This is certainly important, but actually organizing and managing time and energy is of equal importance.

Prioritizing is critical in terms of organizing our time and energy, and helps to put perspective on what is important. But how do we determine what is most important?....After all, swimming lessons are important, but so is Uncle Joe’s birthday party barbecue, or my dirty house and laundry..and we can’t forget about the trips to the beach or to Great Adventure that I promised everyone last April, when the summer seemed so far away, and limitless (?). Prioritizing means more than just putting activities first, second, etc. Rather, priorities need to be based on what we believe is important in life, in other words, on our values. Many of us don’t take the time to think about our values—they are just sort of there, to be pulled out when important moral issues are at stake. But values are the principles upon which we live our daily lives; they help guide us in determining how to prioritize what is important and what is not.

It helps if we focus on looking at the essence of why we choose to do a particular activity. Sometimes it is out of guilt, or a sense of duty, because we don’t want to disappoint or offend anyone, or because we just don’t know how to say NO! Whatever the apparent reason, we need to look at how our values correspond to our activity choices. For example- you are faced with a week-end choice…Do I attend Uncle Joe’s party, go on the promised Great Adventure trip, relax at the beach and read my summer novel, or do last week’s laundry? There are many possible values involved here; giving back to extended family members, as they have given to you, modeling the importance of close family interactions, keeping promises, spending quality time together having fun, taking care of personal needs for rest, relaxation and organization—the possibilities are many. Since we cannot do all the activities (although many of us pay the price for trying to do so), we must make choices based on how an activity correlates to our values. We may place a high priority on family togetherness and interactions, and a lower priority on the laundry; recognizing that our kids won’t die if they have to wear the same, not so clean, outfit two days in a row. Or, we may recognize that our health and well-being (and therefore, our ability to manage all of the above) is on the line, and decide to stay home and relax, regardless of the consequences. The challenge is to embrace our decision, and let it go!

Often, as parents, we make decisions because we don’t want to disappoint our children. How will they learn to handle the inevitable disappoints in life, if not given the opportunity to do so? When we try to please everyone, and think all activities have top priority, we end up feeling fatigued, angry and guilty; unhealthy emotions that will not enhance our lives. When we feel we “should” be devoting all our “free” time to our children, we often end up resenting the fact that we do not have time for ourselves, while at the same time feeling guilty if we do take the time- a real catch 22! The irony of this is that if we don’t spend the time on ourselves, engaging in the activities that help us feel good, or help us grow, then we have nothing left to give to anyone else—particularly our children.

An important result of prioritizing is that it helps us say NO more easily. If an activity relates to a higher value, then it has a higher priority, if it does not, then we can say no to it with more comfort and less guilt. Without priorities, activities that aren’t really important in the long run, tend to take over our lives. Usually, when we sit down, and take a good, hard, look at our schedules, keeping in mind our values, we can arrange our lives to reflect those principles. Actually we can’t afford not to!


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