Raising kids can throw a wrench, sometimes a crowbar, into our individual and relationship fulfillment. As a mother of two, and a coach who helps parents stay sane and stay together, I see this happen even under the best of circumstances.
It's no wonder, then, that the American Psychological Association (APA) reported in 2010 that parents live with stress levels that “exceed their definition of healthy” and a third of parents describe their daily stress as “extreme.”
Our society tends to tackle stress individually: What can I do to decrease my stress? How can I take better care of myself? It's true that the more we each do to support ourselves, to care for ourselves in ways that reduce our personal stress, the better.
Yet, rarely do we tackle stress as a relationship issue. Just as stress is an undeniable factor in 21st-century family life, so too is stress contagious. Sociologists who study marriage dynamics refer to secondhand stress as “tension spillover.” It describes how we absorb our spouse's stress, even if we're not feeling stressed ourselves.
According to the 2010 APA report, our kids, too, sense our stress. 39% feel sad, 39% worry, and close to a third expresses frustration when parents are stressed.
How can addressing stress from a relationship-perspective help our families?
First, it takes the onus off individuals to manage stress, solely, on their own. Recasting stress as a relationship issue inspires teamwork. As research shows, teamwork is key to successful co-parenting. Co-parenting enhances our children's developmental wellbeing in all aspects of their lives.
Plus, approaching stress from within our relationships invites us to design strategies with spouses, and our kids who are old enough to do so, that limit stress-contagion.
The Basket Dump
Here's a strategy created by Relationship Coach, David Wikander, and his wife, Tracy. It helps couples, and families, share the tension they're feeling, while limiting the negative impact on each other. Their tool, which I call The Basket Dump, encourages us to communicate without unloading on our mates and kids.
Let's say, for example, that after a stressful day at work you want to share some of your experiences with your spouse or partner. Instead of just spilling your guts, you can get a basket, or any container, and place it between you. Next, you direct your comments to the basket, and let go of the stresses you are holding.
Odd as it sounds, this simple gesture of aiming your tension at an inanimate object is good for both of you. It keeps you from handing your stress over to someone you love, while giving you somewhere neutral to release it. For your partner, it creates enough distance from what you're saying that s/he can be supportive without taking on your stress. Stress diffused. Tension-spillover avoided.
A variation on this is to label an object in your house as the “Stress-eptacle” (or Stress Can, etc.) Take a few minutes every week, or every day, to jot down the stuff that's feeling really stressful. Toss those scraps of paper into the container. You can either leave it at that, or encourage family members to share what they threw out. Keep the focus on dumping the details into the basket, not onto each other.
Call a family meeting to discuss a Stress Strategy (or broach the topic with your spouse if kids are too young to participate). Ask questions like,
- How can we work together to reduce stress, tension and discomfort in our home?
- What's a fun way to help us release stress that we can do on a daily or weekly basis, whether together or apart?
- What are signs that stress is becoming contagious in our home?
- How do we want to stop the spread of stress?
Whatever approach you take, shifting stress from a personal issue to a relationship and family issue nurtures us at all levels: with our kids, our spouses and ourselves.