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 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 what is stress in the first place?

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

Psychologist, author, and speaker Nathalie Parent offers the following example: If you saw your little one toddling toward the street, the rush of anxiety would help you get to them as fast as humanly possible. “Stress is also what gives you the energy you need to be prepared when you’re expecting your first child or heading out on a family trip,” Parent adds.

Blame it on the 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 doesn’t actually have to take place for your body to produce stress hormones. The way your brain interprets the situation is what determines your body’s reaction. “Just the thought of a stressful event, whether real or perceived, 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 a little like being permanently wound up,” Parent explains.

Chronic stress is bad for your health. Among other things, it can affect your mood, cause sleep problems, and even prevent the body from working properly, which raises the risk of developing health issues such as abdominal obesity, depression, high cholesterol, heart disease, and diabetes.

A recipe for stress

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

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.

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.”

Parents may complain about their humdrum routine, but the truth is, routines help structure the day in a way that both children and adults find reassuring. We feel more productive when performing everyday tasks, and this helps reduce stress. But when an unexpected situation disrupts that routine (a flat tire, for example), it can turn your entire day upside down.

N for Novelty

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

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 I’m being evaluated on my parenting skills!”

Together, these elements form the acronym NUTS. Use this handy mnemonic device to quickly recognize—and avoid—the causes of stress.

To each their own

Stress affects everyone to some degree, but just how much has partly to do with 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 kindergarten since you’re new to the situation, whereas a parent of three will likely be much more relaxed, having 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. Becoming informed about a new situation you’re in (e.g., your child’s recent diagnosis) can also help minimize stress.

“Online groups for parents can also be helpful,” 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. “There are people who are extremely busy and who always have a jam-packed schedule, yet they aren’t the least bit stressed because they feel they have a handle on things.”

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 life-work 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 life-work 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, a 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 to 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.

... and family-related stress

Family dynamics can also have an effect on stress. With couples splitting up more frequently, 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 to be good at them all.

Another nonnegligible source of stress is the predominance of negative news stories. “More than ever, parents see danger everywhere they look,” says Sonia Lupien. “The information spread by the media and online feeds their fears.”

What’s more, thanks to the internet, parents now have all kinds of information at their fingertips about children’s nutrition and development, parenting methods, and more. Being well informed can be empowering, but there are also downsides:

  • It can create the illusion that it’s possible to be a perfect parent, which causes parents to put too much pressure on themselves.
  • It can lead some parents to always seek out expert opinions instead of trusting their own judgment.
  • It can fuel anxiety rather than alleviate it when different sources provide contradictory information.

Social media can lead some parents to compare their skills or family life to those of other parents. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that people tend to post things that make them look good without necessarily giving an accurate picture of reality.

Parental burnout

Long-term stress can lead to mental health problems. Although it 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: the parent feels wiped out and at their wits’ end, and everything feels like a challenge. Next is emotional detachment, where they begin showing less interest in and affection toward their child. All of this leads to the final stage, where they simply feel like a bad parent.

Parental burnout can come from many factors. However, the desire to be a perfect parent 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 energy 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, including the mental load. 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 up to the age of 5, 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 indicated 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 for an extended period of time, 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 may also experience headaches, back pain, digestive problems, or impaired memory, while others may start smoking, drinking, or eating more.

Stress is contagious

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.

It’s important for parents to avoid passing their stress on to their children. Studies have shown that simply observing stress in somebody else can increase a person’s levels of stress hormones. Consequently, your child may be producing stress hormones for no other reason than that they can see you’re going through a hard time.

That’s why it’s important to learn how to manage stress not just for your own sake, but for the sake of your child,” Sonia Lupien says. What’s more, according to psychologist Nathalie Parent, too much stress can make you less available to your child. If your child senses that their emotional needs have become less of a priority for you, they might start acting out to try to get your attention.

Come up with a plan B

To reduce 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. Are you anxious about not being in control? Are you stepping outside your comfort zone? 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.

When people are stressed, they have more difficulty managing their emotions.

“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. “For instance, there’s no reason why Dad can’t be the one to go to daycare meetings or keep track of medical appointments.”

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’ll 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 do some gardening. 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 pounding, you begin to sweat, and your breathing quickens as your nerves ramp up. 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 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 curb stress hormones. “Our family is big on comic books, and we often do imitations of Captain Haddock from Tintin,” says Jérôme, father to 10-year-old CharlesÉtienne, 4-year-old FélixAntoine, and 2-year-old Simon-Olivier. “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.”


  • Stress is a normal part of life. It allows you to adapt to new, difficult, or unexpected situations and react to danger.
  • Too much stress can take a toll on family life and lead to physical and mental health problems.
  • You can reduce stress by focusing on the root cause and finding ways to tame, manage, or eliminate it.
Naître et grandir

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

Updated: June 2023



Books for parents

  • Duclos, Germain. Attention, enfant sous tension! Le stress chez l’enfant. Éditions du CHU Sainte-Justine, 2011, 146 pp.
  • Parent, Nathalie. Enfants stressés! Tout ce qu’il faut savoir pour aider votre enfant à grandir sereinement. Paris, Michel Lafon, 2019, 240 pp.
  • Seidah, Amélie, and Isabelle Geninet. L’anxiété apprivoisée : transformer son stress en ressource positive. Éditions Trécarré, 2020, 152 pp.
  • Mikolajczak, Moïra, and Isabelle Roskam. Le burn-out parental. L’éviter et s’en sortir. Odile Jacob, 2017, 192 pp.

    On a trouvé un nombre de pages différent que le nombre dans le texte FR (256) :

  • Durruty, Brigitte, and Catherine Schwennicke. Parent zen : comprendre le stress pour rétablir l’harmonie en famille. Éditions de l’Homme, 2014, 208 pp.
  • Hébert, Ariane. Stress et anxiété : stratégies et techniques pour les gérer. Éditions de Mortagne, 2020, 192 pp.
  • Books for kids
  • Snel, Eline. Sitting Still Like a Frog. Mindfulness Exercises for Kids (and Their Parents). Shambhala, 2013, 112 pp.
  • Sileo, Frank J. La pleine conscience : une pause juste pour toi. Illustrated by Jennifer Zivoin, Éditions Dominique et compagnie, 2022, 40 pp.
  • Online help
  • Anxiety Canada. MindShift CBT App.