The stress of parenting explained

Being a parent is both stimulating and rewarding. But let’s be honest—it’s also pretty stressful! Here’s what you need to know in order to understand and manage parenting stress.


Understanding stress

Your youngest is throwing a tantrum, your eldest has a stomach bug, it’s crunch time at work, and there are a million things to do around the house. Stress can stem from any number of factors—but just what is stress in the first place?

By Nathalie Vallerand

Your youngest is throwing a tantrum, your eldest has a stomach bug, it’s crunch time at work, and there are a million things to do around the house. Stress can stem from any number of factors—but just what is stress in the first place?

Stress is a normal part of being a parent. You could even say it’s crucial, because it allows you to adapt to new, difficult, or unexpected situations and react to danger.

Psychologist Nathalie Parent offers the following example: If you saw your little one running toward the street, it’s very likely that the stress would send you sprinting faster than ever to get to him in time. “Stress is also what gives you the energy you need to be prepared when you’re expecting your first child or when you’re heading out on a family trip,” Parent adds.

Blame it on hormones

When your brain detects what it perceives to be a threat, your body releases adrenaline and cortisol, two hormones that give you a surge of energy. Adrenaline helps the heart pump more blood to your muscles to boost your strength; it also stimulates the lungs to increase the amount of oxygen entering your bloodstream. Meanwhile, cortisol helps keep your energy level up and heighten your awareness.

A stressful event needn’t actually take place for your body to produce stress hormones. It’s how your brain interprets a situation that determines your body’s reaction. “The mere thought of a stressful event can trigger the release of stress hormones,” says Sonia Lupien, president of the Centre for Studies on Human Stress.

Though helpful in small doses, stress hormones become harmful when they build up over a long period. If you frequently and regularly face stressful situations, stress can become a chronic condition; it’s “almost like being permanently wound up,” explains Parent.

Chronic stress is bad for your health. It can lead to problems such as changes in mood and trouble sleeping and even prevent the body from working properly, which raises the risk of developing health problems such as abdominal obesity, depression, high cholesterol, heart disease, and diabetes.

A recipe for stress

Situations that involve one of more of the following elements will cause your body to release stress hormones:

N for Novelty

Whether you’re expecting your first child, you and your partner have just separated, or your infant is starting daycare, any new experience is a potential source of stress.

U for Unpredictability

Being faced with an unexpected event can also be stressful; imagine, for instance, your child throwing a tantrum at the grocery store or the daycare educator asking to meet with you out of the blue. Mathieu, father to 4year-old Lily and 15monthold Charlie, recently had to deal with his daughters getting sick one after the other. “It wasn’t anything serious, but I had to take quite a few days off work,” he explains. “I was stressed because I didn’t see it coming.”

T for Threat to the ego

Situations that test your abilities are another source of stress. The same goes for moments when you feel judged or experience selfdoubt. For Lily and Charlie’s mom, MarieÈve, breastfeeding in public is one of those moments. “I always wonder whether people will give me funny looks,” she explains. Taking her daughters for regular checkups at the doctor can also be an ordeal: “I feel like the doctor is really testing my mommy skills! My kids are healthy and I take good care of them, but that doesn’t keep my heart rate from skyrocketing.”

S for Sense of control

Lastly, situations that are out of your control can also trigger stress—for instance, when you can’t seem to soothe your colicky baby, when your child is born prematurely, or when traffic is about to make you late to pick up your kids from daycare.

Together, these elements form the acronym NUTS. Use this handy tool to quickly recognize—and avoid—the ingredients that cause stress.

To each their own

Stress affects everyone to some degree, but it also depends on your personality. “What you find stressful won’t necessarily be stressful for other parents,” says Lupien. “For example, you might be a ball of nerves the day your eldest starts preschool since you’re new to the situation, but it would be no big deal for the parents of four kids who have been through it all before.”

People who have a natural tendency to worry or overreact are more likely to experience stress,” adds Steve Audet, a social worker and psychotherapist at the Centre de consultation conjugale et familiale de Québec, a centre for marriage and family counselling in Quebec City. Moreover, studies show that individuals with anxiety or low selfesteem produce more stress hormones.

You’re also at greater risk of experiencing stress if you live in a disadvantaged area, have financial difficulties, or struggle to meet basic needs, such as providing your family with food and shelter.

Your outlook on life can also affect your stress levels.

Living in an isolated area or taking care of a child who has an illness, disability, learning impediment, or developmental disorder are yet further sources of stress. On the flip side, having support and a strong network can help keep stress at bay. That’s why it’s important for parents to seek support from friends and family, or from selfhelp groups and community organizations.

“Even online groups for parents can have a positive effect,” says Lupien. “When you have a newborn and aren’t getting any sleep, it’s comforting to get advice and encouragement from other parents. It makes you feel like you’re regaining control of the situation.”

Does lack of time equal stress?
Though many people blame stress on being short on time, they may be pinpointing the wrong issue. “It’s not a lack of time that causes stress but rather the feeling that you have no control over time,” explains Lupien. “Some people are extremely busy and constantly running around yet don’t feel the least bit stressed.”

Are parents more stressed than before?

It’s hard to deny that parents today are more stressed than in previous generations. Increased social pressure, a tougher work–life balance, and shorter marriages are among the many reasons behind this change.

It’s hard to deny that parents today are more stressed than in previous generations. Increased social pressure, a tougher work–life balance, and shorter marriages are among the many reasons behind this change.

“Parents put a lot of pressure on themselves to be perfect,” says psychologist Nathalie Parent. Fanie, mother of three, agrees. “I’m pretty hard on myself, which means I’m constantly questioning my parenting decisions. Are my kids overstimulated? Under-stimulated? It doesn’t keep me up at night, but it’s always in the back of my mind.”

Work-related stress . . .

Much of the stress of parenthood comes from trying to reconcile work and family life. Responsibilities such as getting the kids two and from daycare, planning and preparing meals, and scheduling doctors’ appointments can all be major sources of stress for parents.

“Don’t forget the stress that parents experience at work!” adds social worker Steve Audet. Given how bad traffic can get, even the commute has become a source of stress: in 2015, a Quebec study showed a link between traffic congestion, stress, and job burnout.

. . . and family-related stress

Family dynamics can also have an effect on stress. With unions growing shorter, separation and blended families are becoming commonplace, resulting in a lot of changes that have only added to parenting stress. One American study even found that parents in blended families are more likely to experience depression. According to the researchers, these parents juggle multiple roles and feel immense pressure in attempting to be good at them all.

Though society has become safer and dangers are few, parents’ obsession with their children’s safety is another significant source of stress. “More than ever, parents see danger everywhere they look,” says Sonia Lupien. “And the information spread by the media and on the web feeds their fears.”

Parental burnout

Long-term stress can lead to mental health problems. Although the disorder has yet to be officially recognized, some parents suffer from what is referred to as “parental burnout.”

According to Belgian researchers Moïra Mikolajczak and Isabelle Roskam, there are three stages of parental burnout. First comes a sense of being physically and emotionally drained—parents feel wiped out and at their wits’ end, and everything seems like a challenge. Next is emotional detachment, where they begin showing less interest in and affection toward their children. By the final stage, they have begun to feel like bad parents.

Parental burnout can come from many factors. However, the desire to be perfect parents and the tendency to set impossible goals play a major role. Oftentimes mothers and fathers will invest so much energy in being parents that they forget about the other aspects of their lives. For example, in their book on the topic, Mikolajczak and Roskam discuss how some parents put all their efforts into childcare, stimulation activities, meals, and playtime. They stop making time for themselves, neglecting their friends, interests, and relationship. Eventually, they snap.

To avoid parental burnout, it’s important to set realistic expectations, take time for yourself, and share childcare and household responsibilities with your partner. At the same time, don’t forget to enjoy quality time with your family!

Parenting stress by the numbers
According to a Quebec study conducted among parents of children aged 0 to 5 years, dealing with a buildup of responsibilities adds to the stress of being a parent.
  • Close to half of the parents surveyed said that they often or always felt as if they were running around all day to get everything done.
  • A little over a third claimed that they were often or always exhausted by dinnertime.
  • 55% never or rarely felt that they had enough free time for themselves.
  • 15% reported often or always feeling stressed about their children’s behaviour or difficulties.
Source: Mieux connaître la parentalité au Québec, Institut de la statistique du Québec, May 2016.

Less stress for a better family life

When parents are under too much stress, the whole family suffers! Fortunately, there are ways to manage the ups and downs of parenthood.

When parents are under too much stress, the whole family suffers! Fortunately, there are ways to manage the ups and downs of parenthood.

When you’re stressed out, you become increasingly irritable, impatient, touchy, impulsive . . . “Snapping at your child or partner is a telltale sign of stress,” says Sonia Lupien, director of the Centre for Studies on Human Stress.

Stress makes it difficult to keep your emotions in check. It can also make it hard to sleep, focus, or be at your best. When stress becomes chronic, these symptoms are aggravated. Some people can experience headaches, back pain, digestive problems, or memory loss, while others may start smoking, drinking, or eating more.

From bad to worse

If you’ve just gotten home after butting heads with someone at work or spending two hours in traffic, the slightest provocation could well send you flying off the handle. Lashing out is one of the body’s ways of releasing pent-up stress. Your loved ones can end up taking the brunt of these outbursts, even if they have nothing to do with why you’re feeling stressed.

Stress can also be contagious. “Your unpredictable mood swings can cause your children to start producing stress hormones,” says Lupien. What’s more, according to psychologist Nathalie Parent, stress can make you less available to your child. As a result, your child might begin acting out to try to get your attention.

Come up with a Plan B

To counteract stress, the first step is not to relax but rather to tackle the source of your stress. Ask yourself why a particular situation is making you stressed. Is it because you aren’t in control or because you’re in unfamiliar territory? Once you have the answer, you can tackle the problem by coming up with a Plan B, C, D, and so on. This will give you more control over the situation and lower your stress hormone levels.

People who are stressed out have trouble keeping their emotions in check.

Of course, you won’t always need to resort to a Plan B to feel better. “Simply thinking about possible solutions lets your brain know that the situation isn’t threatening after all,” explains Lupien. “The body therefore has a less acute reaction to the stress.”

For instance, the first time Fanie’s eldest son went to the dentist, he threw a tantrum and refused to open his mouth. When it came time to take his brother, FélixAntoine, for his first checkup, Fanie was stressing out. She decided to prepare him for what to expect: “I told him, ‘You’ll get to sit in a big chair, the hygienist will use a noisy instrument to clean your teeth, you’ll get to choose what flavour toothpaste they use, etc.’ I also let him bring his favourite stuffed animal. Doing all of this beforehand helped me feel more in control and less stressed.”

Marie-Ève, mother of Lily and Charlie, finds it stressful being the head of the family. “My mind is constantly going over an endless to-do list,” she says. A lot of parents are in the same boat! If you’re feeling overwhelmed, consider changing your routine to give yourself time to breathe. “Parents—mothers especially—should learn to delegate,” says Parent. “There’s no reason why, for instance, daddy can’t go to daycare meetings.”

Other tools for managing stress

Accepting that everything can’t be perfect, rejigging your priorities, and lowering your expectations can also help you get a handle on stressful situations. Are there other ways to reduce stress? “Yes, but there’s no magic formula,” says Lupien. “What works for others may not work for you. And just because something worked once doesn’t mean it will work every time.” The key is to keep a couple tricks up your sleeve so that you can try different approaches.

Here are a few tips for managing stress:

Take time for yourself. Is your mind racing when you go to bed? You’re not alone. This is often the only time of the day when the brain is not stimulated. “And your brain hates it,” says Lupien. “It takes advantage of the opportunity to remind you about everything that’s stressing you out, which makes it hard to fall asleep.” Lupien suggests taking a minute every day to let your brain shut off (no books, TV, computer, music, etc.). You could go for a swim, go running, take a walk, pick up your knitting needles, draw, walk your dog, take a bath, or chop wood. Your thoughts will naturally turn to what’s making you stressed, and you can then start formulating a Plan B, C, or D. Best of all, instead of tossing and turning in bed, you’ll finally be able to get some shuteye.

Take a deep breath or go for a walk. The educator has asked to speak to you about your child’s behaviour. Right before the meeting, your heart starts to pound, you begin to sweat, your breathing quickens, and you start to feel nervous. As soon as you notice physical signs of stress, take a few deep breaths: breathe in from your belly and exhale slowly. This will help you regain your composure. You can also try going for a brisk walk.

Get moving. Stress causes you to summon up a lot of energy to respond to a threat, whether real or imaginary. If this energy doesn’t get used up, it can result in mood swings or other symptoms. Studies have shown that regular physical activity makes you less prone to stress.

Laugh. Are you feeling stressed after a day at the office? Sharing a laugh with your kids can counter the negative effects of stress. It’s no joke—laughter helps cut down on stress hormones. “Our family is big on comic books, and we often do imitations of Captain Haddock from Tintin,” says Jérôme, father to CharlesÉtienne, 10; FélixAntoine, 4, and Simon-Olivier, 2. “A good giggle helps release builtup tension.”

And the list goes on. Doing yoga or tai chi, meditating, listening to relaxing music, cooking, doing a good deed, helping a friend, and cuddling with your pet are other ways to unwind. That being said, you also need to address the exact cause of your stress, as simply relaxing won’t make your troubles disappear.

When to ask for help
Are you starting to lose your temper more often? Do you obsess over problems so much that you can’t fall asleep? Are you always tense? If it’s starting to feel as though stress is taking over your life and you’re having trouble regaining control, consider reaching out to a doctor, psychologist, psychotherapist, social worker, or support group. “In therapy, we help people figure out what they have the power to do about the cause of their stress,” explains social worker and psychotherapist Steve Audet. “The goal is to help them realize that they have more control than they think, and that they can improve things and feel better.”


Naître et grandir

Source:Naître et grandir magazine, November 2017
Research and copywriting: Nathalie Vallerand
Scientific review: Dr. Nicolas Chevrier, psychologist


Photos (in order): Nicolas St-Germain, GettyImages/zergkind, GettyImages/kate_sept2004, GettyImages/kikovic, GettyImages/fatcamera, GettyImages/vgajic, GettyImages/portra