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Parental stress

Family stress is often influenced or moderated by parental stress. It is important that parents take action to manage the amount of stress the family is experiencing. There are strategies that parents can use to moderate family stress.

Parental coping

These are the specific efforts that parents use to manage a stressor or crisis event. Coping strategies may be healthy or unhealthy, but either way are used as ways to cope with stress. Strategies include:

  • Taking direct actions like acquiring resources, learning new skills, and asking for help.
  • Altering one’s interpretation by reframing the circumstance (viewing it differently).
  • Managing one’s emotions through social support or substance use.

Parental adaptation

This is the ability of parents or other family members to recover from stress and crisis. Recovery may occur by either eliminating or reducing stress. It may occur through the family’s ability to adjust to the new circumstance. This allows the family to return to their regular patterns and regain stability.

Why is my family so stressed?

Within the family system, stress is defined as pressure or tension that leads to change. Family crisis or stress is the result of the interaction of three factors:

  • The nature of the stressor.
  • The family’s potential available resources.
  • The meaning or definition that the family assigns the stressor.

The nature of the stressor

Stressors or stress events can be divided into three types.

  • Normative stressors are either
    • Common to everyday life, such as daily hassles.
    • Longer term developmental transitions that are often typical of family life such as having children.
  • Nonnormative stressors
    • Unpredictable, sudden, dramatic occurrences.
    • Have considerable potential to disrupt the lives of parents and children such as natural disasters, sudden death, illness, or injury, or winning the lottery).
  • Chronic stressors
    • Atypical circumstances that occur over an extended period of time.
    • Difficult to amend, and may have debilitating effects for parents and children.

The family’s potential available resources

Resources are the potential strengths that individuals and families have that can be used to cope with stressors.

Personal resources of parents include:

  • Economic well-being.
  • Knowledge (e.g, child development).
  • Physical, emotional and psychological well-being.

Familial and social resources include support that social networks may provide such as:

  • Advice
  • Social support
  • Material assistance
  • Encouragement

The more resources that you have to draw from, the less likely you are to experience the unpleasant effects of stress.

The meaning the family attributes to the stressful event determines whether they experience the stressor as:

  • Positive
  • Negative
  • Neutral

An identical event or stressor may result in different responses from different family members.

The effects of parental stress

Parental stress impacts both individuals and family relationships. Parental stress tends to spill over into child rearing. It can  contribute to parents being less responsive and affectionate toward their children. This decline in the quality of parenting may lead to a variety of negative children’s outcomes, such as:

  • Feelings of rejection
  • Lowered self-esteem
  • Disruptive and aggressive behaviors
  • Social withdrawal

Less distressed parents tend to be more responsive, warm, rational, and moderate in the kinds of control they use with children. Child characteristics associated with such parenting practices include:

  • High self-esteem.
  • School achievement.
  • Effective social skills.
  • Ability to achieve a balance between conforming to parents and gaining autonomy.

The degree of stress a family experiences is highly dependent on the stressors, environment and individuals involved.

Reviewed by Cari Michaels, Extension educator in family resiliency

Reviewed in 2023

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