Dads and Stress

by John Hoffman

Have you ever noticed that when you’re in a good mood you’re a better parent? You don’t get as upset or frustrated by your children’s behaviour. You are more patient, better at solving in-the-moment parenting problems and you enjoy your kids more. When you’re in a bad mood you don’t do any of those things as well.  Right?

So what can a Dad do to make sure he’s in a good mood more often? I’ve got two words for you: manage stress.

The ability to deal with stress is one of the keys to a successful life. Seriously.

When we’re highly stressed, or stressed for a long time without relief, a big chunk of our inner resources are monopolized, trying to keep a lid on stress overload. That reduces the amount of thinking power, social smarts and emotional skills we have available to help us do the things we want to do, like exercise self-control, think clearly, make good judgments – or be good fathers.

So, whatever else you do to be a good dad, deal with your stress.

We have two ways main ways to tackle stress. Reduce and cope.

Reducing stress is not just a question of trying to avoid all stressful situations. Many of the most important things we do, like looking after children, are stressful at times. And we’re not going to stop doing those things. But we can find ways to reduce or prevent some of the stress associated with raising kids.

Here are three ways to do that.

1.Build your skills and knowledge. Any challenging situation is more stressful if you don’t have the knowledge and skill to handle it. Parenting is a skill. Sure, some people learn as they go. But lots of good parents help themselves by building skills. They read parenting books, learn about child development, or take parenting courses (no, parenting courses are not just for “bad” parents).  As they learn more, you increase your confidence and reduce their stress.

2. Watch how you behave in stressful moments. Recently I talked with a mom who realized that one of the reasons she found discipline so stressful was that she and her husband undermined each other and often argued during discipline episodes. After they discussed their philosophical differences and agreed to stop undermining each other, their stress levels went down. Changing the way you behave in a stressful situation can reduce the amount of stress you feel.

3. Adjust your thinking.  Picture a guy trying to deal with a preschooler’s tantrum. If he thinks of that behaviour as manipulative, or unacceptably immature, he will be more stressed out by the tantrum.  But if this Dad sees the meltdown as the sign of an overwhelmed kid who needs Dad’s help to calm down, the tantrum may still be stressful, but not as stressful.  And he’s less likely to do or say something that makes it worse (see #2).

Coping.

Coping is important because we can’t possibly avoid all stress. There are two parts to coping. Being able to get through it without going to pieces is the part of coping we think about most often. But there’s another crucial part – recovering. If you can’t get back to normal after stress is over, too many of your resources get sucked into the stress vortex. It becomes hard to function and stress gets worse and worse.

What affects your ability to recover stress?  Lifestyle for one thing.  If we don’t eat right or get enough rest, if we drink too much alcohol or caffeine, that exerts a kind of stress on the body which can drain our stress resources.  Taking breaks and doing things we love to do (for ourselves) help us recover too.

And let’s not forget the single most important coping mechanism we humans have:  social support. Mothers know this. That’s why they hang out together, flock to playgroups and form online communities. Men tend not to be as good as women at seeking out social support. But dads need it too. There is actually a fair bit of research to show that when fathers feel well supported (particularly by their partners) they tend to use better parenting strategies.  Why? It’s at least partly because their parenting efforts are not constantly undermined by stress.

So, if you want to be a better dad address the stress. Work as a team with your partner, connect with other dads (Saturday morning Dad programs are a good way to do that) and, generally, surround yourself with as many supportive people as you can get. It will make a difference.

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