For so long now, it seems that we have faced daily anxiety or stress about the future. Work and school moved online for many of us, and there is growing uncertainly about how effectively our children will build relationships. These parenting stresses and fears can range from an 18-month-old’s potential stunted language development to the skyrocketing rates of depression surrounding adolescents trapped in isolation.
Sometimes, it’s necessary to be honest about the many challenges facing both our children and us. Even in the midst of difficulty there is hope and encouragement for you!
For a few minutes, let’s exhale and authentically process some of those very real challenges our families face. Even though mask mandates and other restrictions are lifting in some places, emotional challenges can persist after a long period marked by stress and anxiety. While these feelings are real, you can prepare to actively breathe in hope, joy, and life as well.
Strategies to Combat Parenting Stress and Cultivate Security
Beginning with you as a parent, let’s discuss the challenging reality of what we’ve all been through and explore something that can be helpful in understanding how God has created us.
In our brains, there is a small, almond‐shaped structure system called the amygdala. Brain researchers would say that the amygdala and our limbic system help us access the emotional temperature of our situations. Picture your amygdala scanning situations in front of you. Whether the situations are happy or stressful, calm or fearful, positive or negative, the amygdala determines our emotional temperature.
The amygdala also helps in storing memories. These memories can be fearful or reward-based experiences. The amygdala is often bent towards false positives, which means that the memories err on the side of remembering things that spell out, “That’s a threat!”
Here’s a quick example. Let’s say you live in Arizona as I do. It’s almost dark, and you’re out walking the dogs. Suddenly, out of the side of your eye, you see a long, thin, three‐foot black object in the yard ahead of you. The limbic system immediately triggers your fight or flight response and internally shouts out, “Snake!”
Rewiring Your Internal Alarm System
Upon closer inspection, the snake is only a tree branch. But you might notice that it can take quite a while for your blood pressure and feelings to return to normal after that experience.
Now, realize that there have been sights, sounds, and words we’ve perceived as genuine threats to our family and us throughout this year. These threats range from the reminders of seeing masks all around us, to hearing spiking COVID-19 statistics, to receiving a phone call that a loved one or friend has fallen ill.
In some ways, it’s like we’ve been on the front lines this last year with parenting stress and threats always around us. And the reality is that people living in very high-stress environments for long periods of time can see their threat systems become hyper‐vigilant! And this can continue even after the actual threats go away. So, what can we do?
You Can’t Always Out‐Logic Parenting Stress
What came first? The emotional reaction to thinking it was a snake? Or the logical, “Well, it’s not moving. This really isn’t snake season. I’m probably mistaken. I see — it’s just a stick.” It’s important to keep reading and believing that things around us are moving back towards a more normal time. But it’s also OK to have feelings. Even feelings of fear, stress, and anxiety..
Create a Stop and Think Card
Find a 3×5 card. On one side, write out a Bible verse such as Joshua 1:9. “…Be strong and courageous. Do not tremble or be dismayed. For the Lord YOUR God is with you wherever you go.” When you feel the fear that things won’t get better, it’s helpful to know, as Joshua tells us, that we’re not alone.
Over the next several months of upcoming transition time when that fear feeling hits us again, take out your card. Read the verse. Know you’re not alone. Then turn the card over and put a tally mark on the back. After every 5th time that you take out your card, make a diagonal line. When you reach the 30th time you’ve made a tally mark, you’ll be amazed how trusting the Lord’s presence in difficult times can help ease parenting stress.
A God-Given Antidote to Parenting Stress Created by Isolation
There’s no doubt about it. It only takes a few studies on the experience of isolation, to find that the lack of relationships can interrupt sleep patterns, increase stress and stroke levels, and even trigger the immune system! While isolation can and does impact us in a variety of negative ways, the God‐given antidote is our need for relationships! We were created for connection!
Did you know your child – and your friends and loved ones — need you to look them right in the eye? Eye‐to‐eye contact is what triggers mirror neurons. This process can yield big relational dividends!
Here’s an example. Proverbs 15:30 says, “Bright eyes make the heart glad.” Imagine the positive physical reactions that are triggered when someone’s eyes light up when they see us! That’s just one benefit of trusting God for the strength and courage to create bright-eyed meetings with loved ones and friends again.
Begin With Something Small
Start with your family. Lift and brighten your eyes whenever you see them walk in from work or after they’re done with school, or when you pick them up from somewhere. Be that person with bright eyes that can “make the heart glad.” And, without a word, you’ll be building attachment in place of stress and anxiety in your home.
For example, schedule a time — even if it’s still hypothetical where you live — to meet up again with people. Do your bright eyes experiment with others as the world re-opens! There really is no substitute for building relationships. Learning how to use virtual platforms has become a common way to stay connected. But in clinical studies, virtual relationships don’t trigger mirror neurons — it’s face‐to‐face relationships that do!
If you live in a place with COVID-19 restrictions, try brainstorming a play date with a friend’s child at an outdoor park. Think of a place to take a friend or family member you haven’t seen in a while for coffee. And then schedule the meeting as soon as you can. Is there a trip to see your parents or other relatives you’ve wanted to plan? No matter where you go or who you eventually see, you will do wonders for them and yourself when you walk in with those bright eyes and watch their face and heart light up!
Developing Relational Intelligence
Even after discussing the encouragement that bright‐eyed interactions can provide, we still might run into some negative situations following prolonged isolation. With isolation, we might feel uncertain or stressed about our relational skills. As a way of application, check out the book that Dr. Dewey Wilson and I recently published called, The Relationally Intelligent Child. The book is written to help parents — and all of us — regain relational ground that may be lost in our lives. Alongside IQ, your kids desperately need to develop relational intelligence as the world reopens!
Relational Intelligence can be a key ingredient in solving parenting stress and anxiety. Moreover, developing an understanding of your family’s unique and individual fears and stresses can benefit your ability to cultivate security. Through your difficult situations, trust that the Lord is present, loves you and your family, and can help ease the burdens of parenting stress.