What’s the top cause of stress for working parents? For many of us, it is trying to balance the responsibilities of being a loving, caring parent who can be there for our kids, and being successful in our careers and all that they entail.
Among working parents, 56 percent say they find it difficult to balance their time between work and family, according to an analysis of survey results by Pew Research Center. Many parents say they feel stressed, tired and rushed. Surveys found that most parents, including at least eight in ten mothers (86%) and fathers (81%), say they feel rushed at least sometimes. Four in ten moms who work full-time said they always feel rushed!
I can certainly relate to these feelings. Years ago, I worked at Twitter when the company was growing by 350%. I loved the work, but I found myself struggling to stay connected to my family. I was committed to meditation and mindfulness, but I had not yet figured out how to weave presence and awareness into my day.
One of the great benefits of mindfulness and meditation is how they teach us to become aware of our feelings. As I explored my own feelings of being pulled in different directions by my responsibilities to my job and family, I discovered that my anxiety often manifested itself in the worry of running out of time.
I hated being late. When I was feeling rushed, I would feel my jaw clench, my throat get tight and my heart race. Like a lot of parents, I often felt rushed on school day mornings. No one can find their shoes, the dogs are barking, the waffles just burned, and you’re running late. What’s a stressed-out parent to do?
One of the most useful skills for dealing with stress is learning to label our emotions. A 2007 study by Matthew Lieberman and his colleagues looked at functional MRI images of people who were emotionally triggered. They found those who labeled their emotions by simply saying “sadness,” “frustration,” “anger,” or any other feeling, experienced a direct calming effect on the amygdala. This is the alarm center of our brain that goes crazy when we are stressed. Simply labeling the emotion decreased the activation of that alarm center.
To help my clients (and myself) practice this technique, I like to use the acronym STOP:
S- Stop. Pause. Don’t do or say anything else!
T- Take a deep breath and focus on a long exhale.
O- Observe the emotion present. Label it.
P- Proceed, with lower emotional reactivity and a more sane response.
Doing this won’t add any minutes or seconds to your day. But as you learn to stop, notice and name the tension you feel, you will find that it no longer rules your experience.
Here are a few skills you can practice to help you better cope when the clock is ticking and you’ve got things to do, places to go and people to meet:
- Explore Your Triggers — What sets you off? Sit down with a journal or piece of paper and write out what triggers you most in the course of a day. Think about the morning, afternoon, and evening. Consider your home environment as well as the outside world. Which people seem to trigger an unwelcome response? What is it that they do? Make this list without beating yourself up over any of it. Think it all through in a matter-of-fact way, as if you were a researcher collecting data.
- Own Your Emotions — For me, one of hardest parts of being a parent isn’t dealing with the naughty or inconvenient things my children sometimes do or say. The truly difficult part is getting myself under control. When you feel yourself starting to get tense, practice the STOP exercise above. After you have practiced it a few times you’ll be able to pause before you react, tune into what is really driving the emotion you are feeling, and settle yourself down.
- Commit to Learn (From Your Kids) — This means looking at those moments you feel parentally stressed through a new lens. When you feel triggered by something your kids say or do, practice asking yourself what you can learn from the experience.
You may be thinking, “Yeah, right. In whose world?” But you will be surprised by how looking inside yourself, and having little extra empathy for yourself and your kids, can change the dynamic when things start to get emotionally stressful.
When I allow myself to learn from my children, they generously guide me towards emotional growth. I can face up to my immature outbursts, my inclination to be a neat freak, or my insistence on not being a second late. By calming myself instead of exploding — and addressing my children patiently and kindly rather than as a maniac on a mission to get something done — I grow in ways I never could have imagined before.