Parental stress or why is it difficult to be a parent these days?
Parental stress is a phrase that popped up in psychology not too long ago, back in the 1970s. In the past, when dealing with a child's issues or behavior, the focus was often on the child alone, without considering the parents. But nowadays, we view situations related to the child within the larger framework of the family. Think of a family like a well-oiled machine – a system where the child and the parent are crucial parts, working together to create a unique system with its own distinct traits and life cycles.
Navigating parenthood comes with its fair share of challenges. Despite the many options and external aids aimed at simplifying our daily lives – from diapers and pre-packaged child-friendly meals to babysitters and house cleaning services – the responsibilities tied to raising children remain significant. In this era, we are fortunate to have access to a plethora of resources, including expert consultations, more convenient transportation, the vast expanse of the internet for information, and the connectivity of social networks. However, the role of parents is undeniably demanding, especially for those who approach their parental responsibilities with a deep sense of duty, striving to be the best possible caregivers for their children.
Parental stress is a relatively new term gaining traction in psychotherapy offices. A growing number of parents are seeking assistance from specialists to navigate challenges related to raising children and address internal and external struggles. This may include feelings of being drained, exhausted, or even burnt out, making it challenging to manage daily responsibilities associated with parenting. It's heartening to witness this trend of seeking support to navigate the complexities of parenting. However, not every parent finds it easy to open up about their feelings. I empathize with them because we are all shaped by our upbringing, often influenced by a tendency to present a polished exterior while concealing internal struggles. As we grew up, our focus was often on how our family appeared to others rather than delving into the realities of what was happening behind closed doors.
Why does parenting stress happen, and what factors contribute to it?
Parental stress is born from the very essence of BEING A PARENT:
- Parents feel the pressure of significant changes in themselves, daily life, and relationships. Adding to this are the new responsibilities that come with raising children. This tiny human relies entirely on the adult, and the younger the child, the more internal tension the parent faces. Being a parent isn't a 9-to-5 gig; it's a round-the-clock job. There's no clocking out or taking a vacation from parenthood. It demands our attention 24/7. If only we could take a break sometimes, reclaim a bit of ourselves and our needs. Picture a moment of quiet, where no one is pulling, yelling, or having a meltdown. Imagine enjoying a warm, not lukewarm, cup of coffee while peacefully watching your favorite TV series. Dream of having a normal conversation with your partner without interruptions while consoling a child. Such situations are challenges in themselves, regardless of whether the child is calm or restless.
The child's sleep patterns play a crucial role. Is your child a sound sleeper, or does a potential neurological disorder disrupt their sleep, affecting your own rest? Chronic sleep deprivation wreaks havoc, leading to impatience, quick temper, and venting frustration on children. This cycle often triggers guilt, self-blame, and promises to do better next time, but it repeats. Many of us can relate to this scenario because sleep deprivation takes a toll.
Consequently, parents might face burnout due to the relentless nature of their role. Stress intensifies when dealing with a very young child, raising numerous questions about how to be better parents, especially if it's their first child. Deep down, we all aspire to be good parents, right?
Stress can also creep in when there are two or more little ones close in age, demanding extra attention and care from parents. It shows up when a child is unwell or faces challenges in kindergarten or school. These situations are pretty significant and call for resources. And let's not forget about special cases, like children with disabilities, which naturally require even more care and effort from parents.
- Another source of stress is the high standards we set for ourselves. Especially if you tend to be a bit of a perfectionist and find it hard to feel satisfied with what you've accomplished. I can relate to these feelings. We all want to be the perfect parent, giving our children the best and shielding them from the tough experiences we had in our own childhoods. But no matter how much effort we put in, perfection in parenting is impossible. There will always be situations we can't predict, control, or solve. So, instead of chasing an unattainable ideal, I would like to give you one important term in parenthood: good enough mom and good enough dad. Being a good enough parent is more than enough; you don't have to be perfect!
Remember: the higher the standards, the more resources you use trying to meet them. Today's parents recognize the importance of investing in their children—it's a crucial investment. Contribute your time, energy, thoughts, and attention. Being a good parent is a significant part of who you are.
- Parents often find that their own memories and experiences from childhood, especially the traumatic ones, resurface when they become parents themselves. I frequently have parents coming to me as a psychotherapist, seeking guidance on the emotional challenges that arise after becoming parents, including postpartum depression, which can affect both women and men.
Long-forgotten memories from childhood can significantly impact a parent's day-to-day interactions with their child. On an unconscious level, everything experienced with their own parents since birth suddenly resurfaces. This creates a double stress for the parent: navigating the new situation and emotions that come with the role of a parent, and the task of dealing with emotions and long-forgotten, likely unresolved and unfelt, emotions that surface during interactions with their child.
These intense emotions may manifest as significant intolerance, rage, anger, panic, despair, powerlessness, helplessness, depression, emptiness, and an inability to handle a child's crying or express bright emotions—sometimes even hysteria. These emotions are often indicators that they are not solely related to the current situation, but rather connected to experiences from the past that require careful attention. It can be challenging to distinguish emotions about today from those about the past, especially if one hasn't delved into and analyzed their childhood experiences beforehand. While revisiting the past may seem daunting, I recommend that every parent consider discussing their childhood experiences with a specialist for a healthier understanding and coping.
- Overflow of information and the abundance of choices that we find ourselves surrounded by. You might have heard stories from parents, grandparents, or relatives reminiscing about the past when managing a household, children, and even a farm seemed less challenging. While these anecdotes are interesting, they often miss the complexities of modern parenting, especially if the storytellers don't have firsthand experience with small children.
In the past, raising children wasn't as intricately discussed or prioritized. Parents played the role of teachers, focusing on basics like clothing, feeding, and cleanliness. Decisions on crucial matters such as birth methods, breastfeeding, pacifiers, slings, feeding styles, vaccinations, pediatricians, kindergarten attendance, and more were typically made by elders or followed societal norms without much questioning.
Contrastingly, today's parents face a different landscape. They bear the weight of responsibility as they are less inclined to delegate decisions. Analyzing a vast amount of information becomes their task, often leading to stress and anxiety. The choices seem endless: natural birth or hospital delivery, exclusive breastfeeding or supplementing with formula, consulting a homeopath or traditional medicine doctor, adopting child-led eating or preparing purees, opting for kindergarten or hiring a babysitter, encouraging sports or nurturing artistic talents?
Each choice made automatically means forgoing numerous other options. The awareness of this reality adds to the pressure, as parents understand that their decisions significantly contribute to their child's future. The responsibility is immense, and the process can be overwhelming.
Various factors contribute to heightened stress for parents in today's challenging environment of child-rearing. It's crucial to consider the unique individual and social aspects within each family, as these factors play a significant role in influencing overall family well-being. While this blog has touched upon some of the most common stressors, it's important to acknowledge the diverse challenges that families may face.
Despite the demanding nature of parenting, there's no life experience that brings more satisfaction than being a parent to your biological or foster children. Witnessing and actively participating in a child's growth and development, coupled with the return on invested time and care, provides an unparalleled sense of fulfillment. This profound satisfaction serves as a driving force, motivating parents to continually strive to become better for their children.
Gestalt Therapist / Founder of the Psychology Center AUGT