Stress often has a trickle effect through families. When one family member experiences high stress levels, the rest of the family can often feel it, too.
Every parent knows the feeling of being frazzled - when you're stuck in traffic and late getting the kids to school, or dinner isn’t ready but you’ve got to get your child to an important activity.
With so many daily pressures, it can feel as if life has no “off-switch”.
Here are some ways to reduce stress and help keep your family feeling healthy and happier.
Ten ways to help families reduce stress and boost coping skills
1. Start with a quick ‘scan’ of your family environment
Take stock of your own stress levels by doing a ‘scan’ of the family environment.
- Are you rushing around from one activity to the next? Does it feel like everyone’s always ‘running on empty’?
- Does your home space put you at ease? Look around your home and ask: does this space make me feel comfortable? Does it feel disorganized and cluttered?
- What are the family routines like? Do you have regular family routines, such as in the morning, after school, or a usual bedtime routine? Are there family mealtimes?
- Is there time for rest and play? Are you able to balance the busy times with enough time to rest, hang out, get creative, and enjoy some play?
- Are you taking care of yourself?
2. Be a role model: Make your own healthy lifestyle a top priority
Many parents don't stop to think about their own health. Give yourself permission to focus on your own self-care, and practice a healthy lifestyle.
Nothing boosts skills to cope with stress like leading a healthy, balanced lifestyle. Being physically active, and eating and sleeping well, are some of the best stress-management strategies out there.
By working on keeping your own stress level down, and keeping calm under pressure, you model for your children to respond more positively to stress and even build up their own resilience to it.
3. Stick to routines: Family rituals create comfort and security
Family routines can often leave everyone feeling more relaxed, organized, and in control.
You can create after-school routines, weekly cleaning routines as a family, and set up bedtime rituals.
For example, keep to a regular bedtime and have your child pick out their clothing the night before to avoid rushing around the next day. Involving children in routines can help them feel more secure and in control.
Remember when setting rituals to start with one small change and build up from there. Too many changes at once can be overwhelming. Also, it’s important to be consistent, so starting with one change and seeing it through is better that making a bunch of great changes that are not followed through.
4. Get active: Motion is a family stress-fighter!
Physical activity not only relieves emotional intensity but also reduces the negative effects of stress on your body.
You don’t have to go to the gym, or join a sports team, to stay active. Going on family walks, digging around together in the garden, having a 10-minute dance party in the living room, or playing active games all offer stress-busting benefits.
5. Build in breaks and buffer zones: Avoid overscheduling and packed calendars
One of the biggest causes of family stress is having too much to do. Can you schedule in some time to slow down and recharge? Are there any family activities that can be paused, done less often or cancelled?
Without some downtime between activities, your child can begin to feel stressed. See if you can try to simplify your schedule. Have a look at your family’s weekly obligations – write them down on a calendar and then stand back together and see what may need to change.
Discuss the pros and cons of stopping one activity by asking your child which activity interests them most. You may be surprised by what you hear! Have a weekly family meeting to review everyone's schedules and commitments so you can plan for the week ahead. This is also a good time to check-in and talk about how everyone is doing.
6. Eat healthy: Good nutrition fuels your day
Our bodies are much better able to cope with stress when fueled with good nutrition.
Family mealtimes also have the added benefit of building closer connections, which is great for helping kids open up about their feelings. Check out our Eating Well section for tips on making family meals less stressful, and podcast episode Cake and Broccoli: Promoting mental wellness through feeding and eating.
7. Sleep well: Make sleeping and bedtime routines a priority
Ever feel more stressed and irritable after a sleepless night? That’s because getting a good night’s sleep can help keep our mood in check and improve our sense of well-being. A tired child often gets stressed more easily. Managing stress can also help with sleep.
So, set up a regular family bedtime routine to set the stage for a better night’s sleep. Check out our Sleeping Well section for practical strategies to help your family get rest, and podcast episode Sleep: Building the Foundation for Family Mental Wellness.
8. Stay connected: Help your child build social support and create closer bonds with you and friends
Having strong social support has been proven to help lower stress. So, encourage your child to participate in fun activities and spend time with friends.
At home, prioritize fun time together, and make time to connect with your child regularly to relax and talk. When children feel connected, they’re more likely to reach out for help.
And don’t forget about your own need for support – connect with your partner and other supportive family members and friends. Consider joining an online parent support group, or find a local group (like a neighbourhood walking group) to support you in the busy times. Also think about ways that you can make things easier with other parents (e.g. start a neighbourhood walking carpool, a “walking school bus,” to help get kids to school).
9. Make family fun outside a priority: Set aside time for nature and play
Spending time as a family outdoors offers great mental health benefits - walks in the park, wilderness hiking, or a family picnic amid trees and water can do wonders for reducing stress.
Even viewing images of nature or listening to nature sounds when you can’t get outside has been shown to help relieve stress and improve well-being. There are lots of great shows about nature and amazing places around the world. See what you can find online or on TV!
When you can’t stray too far from home, play a backyard game together as a family and leave those screens and gadgets behind. Children are experts at play, so let them choose an activity and go!
10. Create a cozy spot: Pick a quiet space for your child’s down time
Set up a special place in your home where your child can go to unwind when they’re upset.
For example, you can set up a little tent in the corner of your child’s room so they have their own place to slip away when facing a difficult or stressful situation, or to decompress. Other ideas of items to include are stress balls, play dough, a book they like, or some pillows and extra blankets.
You could also have a place that’s in a common space, like a corner of the living room with extra pillows and a cozy lamp, or a place in the kitchen with art supplies.
A few tips to reduce triggers that may cause stress in children
1. Plan ahead for potentially stressful situations
Encourage children to rehearse and practice for situations which may cause stress, such as public speaking, or a sports try-out.
It can be helpful to let your child know ahead of time when a potentially stressful event is coming up (such as a doctor's appointment or dental visit), and talk about what will happen to prepare them for the visit.
2. Give children plenty of notice if anything in their lives is changing
Since many children struggle when they feel like they don’t have much control, talking to them about upcoming changes (like a move to a new house) can help. Give them time to share their concerns and ask questions. Accept that your child may be feeling lost or confused.
Try to minimize any other changes where you can, and look for opportunities to provide choices and control where possible. The more your child feels they understand and are prepared for situations and events, the better.
3. Be aware of the news and media that your child watches
Your child may feel scared and worry about their safety and the safety of loved ones if they see disturbing news images on TV or hear talk of natural disasters and war, for example.
Limit the content they are exposed to, make sure what they are seeing and watching is developmentally appropriate and even then, watch and listen with them so that you can talk about the events together during and after the programming.
Even a well-intentioned video at school that inspires some children, could trigger fear in others. Ask them about their school day to help know topics you may want to discuss together. Talk through these experiences with them to help put it all in perspective.
4. Manage your child’s expectations and build up their confidence
Many children’s stress comes from wanting to please their caregivers and mentors, or live up to a standard of their own. It can be useful to talk to your child about setting reasonable and achievable expectations early on.
Take an active lead by loosening expectations and pressure, by saying things like, “I am so proud of how hard you worked on the project this weekend” or “You were a great passer in the soccer game today. I love watching you play.”
To help build up their confidence, try to avoid using other children as a standard for measuring your child’s success.
5. Avoid discussing parental stresses around children
Parents face stress in their everyday lives, and children are often very aware of their parents’ stressors.
It’s important for parents to have time to talk about stress – to vent and to problem solve. Just make sure that you are aware of who is listening when expressing your own stress. Children who overhear may start to worry themselves.