Psychologist David Simonsen, from the Seattle, Washington, area, sees those same stressors in his clients. A lot of single parents tell him they feel they're drowning in responsibility — "usually mothers who have to figure out how to nurture and do the discipline alone." Many say they feel inadequate, he said. He also sees families who struggle to make ends meet, especially if they are financially overextended.
Peer pressure can fuel adolescent stress, which teens pass on to parents. Even something like wanting to have a cellphone can add to the pile of stress. Simonsen predicts families will feel even more stress now that recreational pot is legal in some areas as teens pressure each other and push boundaries.
Simonsen has seen stress trigger depression and other mental health issues that may pose lifelong challenges. It can make people short-tempered and unreasonable in their demands. When parents are unreasonable, kids don't respect and won't listen to them. That can escalate into other issues.
"I think the way to reduce that is to realistically look at the things causing stress, like single parenting. If you recognize that 'this is a thing that stresses me out' and have some kind of support network, stress is more manageable," Simonsen said.
Like a dog chasing its tail, stress makes sleep elusive and lack of sleep increases stress — and both increase irritability, said MacMannis. Missing sleep is also problematic because "over 90 percent of daily replenishment of serotonin happens during the REM sleep cycle," which is shortchanged by inadequate sleep.
MacMannis said it's crucial to remember that "quality of time with family members is more important than quantity." That's one reason couples who neglect their relationship have more stress. Being loving, kind and affectionate with each other is a gift parents can give the whole family, he noted. "Have a date night and also develop tools to handle issues as diligently as you attend to the chicken bones in the kitchen garbage. No one lets those sit around because it starts to stink."
In McMannis's practice, finance shows up as a major stressor for families. Jobs worries, lack of time, pressure to help kids get into the "right" schools and other factors also challenge family composure and balance.
It's not always possible to oust stressors, MacMannis said. But you can change how you deal with your feelings. You can get enough sleep and exercise as a way of finding your center. You can try different forms of relaxation. For a few minutes each day, he said, "take a slow, deep breath. Take a bath, take a walk, listen to good music."
Those polled cited time with family or friends, prayer and meditation, outdoor activities, eating well, exercise, hobbies and pets as ways they coped with stress in the past month. Some, though fewer, said they sought help, from getting a prescription to having therapy or taking time off.
Schubert emphasizes the solvable nature of stress. While she believes America "needs some big changes to better support families," she also sees "small changes we can all make to help parents and families be less stressed."
Those include providing a meal to a family with a new baby or offering to watch a single mom's kids while she runs to the store. Empathy is a big stress buster.
"There are smaller actions that really count at the end of the day to help people better manage," she said.
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