Feeling overwhelmed or irritable? Experiencing headaches or dizziness? Don’t panic! There are many ways to manage stress.
Stress is a normal part of life, but can be especially difficult if you’re a parent. The arrival of a child can completely upend a family’s routine. New parents have to cope with a host of emotions and conflicts, not to mention fatigue. When stress persists and becomes chronic, symptoms can appear, whether physical (such as headaches or dizziness) or psychological (anxiety or exhaustion).
What is stress?
Stress is the body’s reaction to an external event or perceived threat. A reasonable amount of stress can be useful, as it allows us to adapt to new environments. However, when stress persists or becomes too great, it can lead to exhaustion, anxiety, and depression.
Although the response to stressful events varies from person to person, the Centre for Studies on Human Stress has identified four triggers that consistently release stress hormones in the human body. These are grouped under the acronym NUTS (Novelty, Unpredictability, Threat to the ego, and Sense of control).
- Sense of control
Having to attend to their child’s needs, night and day, can be stressful for a parent, as they feel they have no control over their schedule. A baby with colic can also be a source of stress, since they’re difficult to console. Financial difficulties can also cause feelings of helplessness.
A child getting sick can be stressful for many reasons. Sometimes a parent doesn’t know what’s causing their child’s symptoms or when they’ll get better. They might also have to change their work schedule to care for them.
When a couple has their first baby, everything is new, and all these changes can be quite stressful. Even the arrival of a second child (link in French) can be difficult, as the family must review their routine and figure out how to deal with new responsibilities. For example, a parent may have to care for the baby while meeting the needs of their older child.
- Threat to the ego
A child who throws a tantrum in public can cause stress, as the parent may worry about being judged. Even their desire to be a good parent can be anxiety-provoking, as they may worry too much about their limitations and imperfections. Life-work balance can also cause a parent stress if they feel pressure from their employer.
How can you manage stress?
There’s no magic formula for dealing with stress, and everyone has their own way of doing it. Here are some strategies that you can try.
- Determine what’s really important to you. Add these to your list of priorities. Remember, putting aside time for yourself is necessary for your mental health.
- Use a paper or electronic calendar to manage your time. Include your work schedule, appointments, and activities. You can even note which parent is picking up your child from daycare. Add items to remember, even if they seem trivial, like “toy day” at daycare. That way, you’ll be less likely to forget when you’re busy or distracted.
Make a list of things to buy or do as you think of them. This will free your mind and help you focus on the present moment.
- List the tasks or activities you want to complete. For example, on Friday night, write down the things you want to do over the weekend in order of priority. However, make sure your list is realistic. Talk about it with your partner so you can support each other. For example, one of you can take care of your child while the other does chores.
- Ask for help when you have an important task or appointment. For instance, your parents or your partner’s parents could take care of your child while you’re out. A niece, nephew, or trusted neighbour could also babysit while you do an activity. Finally, consider setting up babysitting exchanges with your friends who have kids.
- If possible, have a backup plan in case of unforeseen circumstances. For example, if you expect to work late that day, ask a close friend or relative if they’re available to pick up your child from daycare. This will save you a lot of hassle and help you manage your stress if something comes up.
- Accept that you can’t control everything. You can’t predict when your child will get sick, or know that your water heater will burst in the middle of the night.
- When an unforeseen situation arises, try to let go and act only on the things that you can truly control (e.g., take care of your child, clean up the leak from your burst heater). Also remember to take deep breaths. Controlled breathing is a great way to calm yourself down in stressful moments!
- Take advantage of community resources, such as support or financial aid groups.
- Accept that not everything is perfect.
- Talk with friends you trust to reduce your stress and feelings of loneliness.
- Take the time to have fun and laugh. This sends messages to your brain to produce mood-boosting hormones.
When should you seek help?
If you’re often irritable and find that it’s affecting your relationship with your family, first try to better manage your stress. Explain to your loved ones that you feel overwhelmed and need support. You should also try to find ways to relieve your stress. For example, take up a sport or fun hobby, or schedule relaxation time.
However, you should consult a doctor in the following cases:
You have no appetite or have a constant urge to eat
You have trouble sleeping
You feel on the verge of a breakdown
You’re struggling with everyday activities
You cry often
You feel that your relationships are suffering
You have physical symptoms, such as headaches or dizziness
You’re often impatient and easily irritated
You’re becoming cynical or have a negative outlook on life, your relationships, or the future
You’re isolating yourself or avoiding others
Your alcohol consumption has increased and exceeds the maximum recommended amount
When you recognize the first signs of stress, don’t wait! Use the relaxation strategies that work best for you.
To do as often as possible
- Rest. Get enough sleep, take naps, and take stretching breaks at work. Set aside time each day to do something you enjoy (e.g., read, listen to music, sing, play an instrument, meditate, take a bath, go for a walk).
- Eat regular, healthy meals. Avoid consuming too much caffeine, sugar, chocolate, alcohol, tobacco, or medication. However, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying these foods and drinks in moderation.
Learn to say no so you don’t get overwhelmed. Don’t put aside your own needs in an effort to please others.
- Do physical activities (e.g., walking, running, cycling, yoga, martial arts) that you enjoy. Moving doesn’t have to be just another chore! It can also be helpful to practise relaxation and breathing techniques, as they’ll help to lower your stress level.
- Focus on the present rather than the past or what might happen in the future.
- Recognize your needs and don’t hesitate to ask for help to meet them. If you need a moment to yourself, tell your partner. Ask them to look after your child for a little while.
- Express your opinions. If something matters to you, don’t be afraid to speak up.
- Make room for positive thoughts. Try to replace your negative self-image with good memories of past successes or happy moments in your life.
- Talk to your partner, a trusted friend, or a family member. Give them a hug.
- Take time to play with your child.
To do regularly
- Spend time with friends.
- Take a moment to relax in a calm setting, such as a library, park, or botanical garden. Go for a walk to unwind.
- Do something you enjoy that you haven’t done in a while: go to a movie, watch a TV series, read a magazine, play your favourite sport, or go to a café or restaurant.
- Make time for your favourite hobby or sign up for a course on a subject that interests you.
- Take mini-vacations. For example, go visit a friend.
Moments of relaxation are essential to release tension. They allow you to rest, regain strength, and better cope with everyday stressors.
Do you have an anxious temperament or mental health disorder?
If you were generally anxious or had a mental health disorder before the birth of your child, managing daily stress might be more challenging for you. Don’t hesitate to seek support from your CLSC or a health professional.
To learn more, consult our fact sheet: The stress of parenting explained.
Things to keep in mind
Stress is the body’s reaction to an external event or perceived threat. As a parent, you’re likely to be confronted with this on a daily basis.
There are several ways to reduce stress. Some will more effective for you than others.
Taking care of yourself is important to reduce your stress level. A healthy lifestyle and regular, relaxing activities can do wonders!
Scientific review: Nathalie Parent, psychologist, author, and speaker
Research and copywriting: The Naître et grandir team
Updated: November 2022
Sources and references
Note: The links to other websites are not updated regularly, and some URLs may have changed since publication. If a link is no longer valid, please use search engines to find the relevant information.
Centre for Studies on Human Stress. “Stress.” www.humanstress.ca
The Brain from Top to Bottom. ”Managing Stress.” www.thebrain.mcgill.ca
Parent, Nathalie. La famille et les enfants d’aujourd’hui. Les Éditions Québec-Livres, 2013, 184 pp.
Parent, Nathalie. Enfants stressés! Tout ce qu’il faut savoir pour aider votre enfant à grandir sereinement. Paris, Michel Lafon, 2019, 240 pp.
Snel, Eline. Sitting Still Like a Frog: Mindfulness Exercises for Kids (and Their Parents). Shambhala, 2013, 125 pp.