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Feeling under pressure as a parent? Here's what an expert says you can do about it

Factors including social media can add to the stress, says psychotherapist Alice Kelly.

Image: Unsplash

AS NORMAL AS it may seem, the act of caring for a tiny, fragile human often on three hours sleep or less, is no easy feat – especially if you choose to do it multiple times, with other little ones at your feet. And that’s only really the beginning, as each birthday brings a new set of challenges.

This generation in particular has to navigate a lot of new challenges such as keeping their kids safe online, struggling with a new childhood obesity epidemic and managing their screen-time.

For the latest instalment of The Health Check with Irish Life Health, we asked you – how do you manage it all as a parent? While most of you felt you get enough time with your kids (6.4/10), feeling pressure to live up to expectations was an issue (6.6/10) as was your parental leave – rating 5.4/10 for satisfaction.

So, what has an expert to say about it all? We spoke to Alice Kelly, clinical manager and psychotherapist at Clanwilliam Institute, to learn what we can do about parental stress. Here she shares a few simple things that we can do to make family life easier.

Why are we so stressed as parents?

While most readers claimed that they were satisfied with the time they had with their kids, Kelly says that for the families she sees, finding quality family time together in 2019 isn’t always that easy:

It still seems that some parents don’t feel they get enough time. We live far busier lives with the constant communication of technology – it can be hard for parents to boundary their time between personal and professional.

And their childhood is a crucial time for establishing a supportive relationship as they grow up: “It’s important for parents to spend as much time as possible when they’re young”, she shares.

This she says, helps kids feel loved and important, growing self belief and confidence and making them resilient: “It also strengthens the relationship for later in life, showing them that they can go to you for sharing and support.”

And the most important thing to remember about this? Go easy on yourself, says Kelly: “We have a desire to give our kids the best possible start in life but this isn’t always doable.” Now that social media has made family life a lot more visible, it can “increase anxiety for parents which can lead to guilt and blame for themselves and their partners.”

It’s no surprise then that readers rated the pressure to live up to expectations as a 6.6/10, which Kelly says is “so common” and “one of the main worries for parents”. But striving for perfectionism can actually have very detrimental effects on a family:

Striving for perfectionism can lead to a negative vibe within the family where you’ll always be disappointed. This can manifest as unrealistic expectations where they’re constantly getting upset with themselves.

Kelly reminds that kids copy what their parents do and that if you create anxiety around the future – you’ll miss out on what’s happening right now. “Parents need to be in the moment a bit more and just enjoy moments with their kids.”

How can we protect our kids when we’re not there?

While you’re getting some well-deserved time together as a couple, you might be worrying about your children’s screen time and online safety – this was a significant source of worry for parents, rating 6.6 on a scale of 1-10, above both diet and exercise.

“The online safety fear has escalated massively in the last few years” shares Kelly. But as a parent, you absolutely must practice what you preach: “If children see parents on their phones constantly, you have no standing to say ‘get off your phone’”.

And too much screen-time can bring with it a myriad of problems, says Kelly. “If they’re solely forming relationships online, they lose a lot of social skills.” Secondly, social media can impact significantly on how your child sees themselves:

Studies show that social media can lead to depression, anxiety and poor body image. We used to look at magazines at airbrushed celebrities, but now it’s their own peers airbrushing themselves.

Kelly suggests creating phone-free zones or times within your house. And while it’s fine for parents to be friends with their kids on social media sites like Facebook, it’s not OK to read their messages: “there must be an element of trust so they know they can come to you if they’re worried about something.” 

No matter what the situation, communication is key: “Have a non-judgemental conversation about their social media use and how they can mind themselves online.”

And what can we do about our stress?

Lowering your stress levels can be a little difficult when you feel your parental leave doesn’t give you that opportunity – readers rated theirs a 5.4/10 in satisfaction. And the significance of this can be huge, especially on your relationship with your partner, says Kelly:

The first few months of having a baby are a really important time for bonding between parents. They allow their partner to appreciate how much work the main caregiver does and to understand the impact of a lack of sleep.

Kelly cites studies in which women have lower rates of postpartum depression when they had taken more leave. It’s not the only thing that parenting impacts – when readers were asked about the impact of parenting on their relationship with their partner, they rated 6.8/10. This was a figure that is of no surprise to Kelly, who says that while having a child “strengthens the relationship, it’s a huge time of stress”:

There’s the lack of sleep, a complete change of routine and your life being flipped on its head – it can have a huge impact on how you communicate with each other. You can really become withdrawn from each other.

She explains: “Suddenly there’s someone who is fully reliant on you both when it was just the two of you for years.” Kelly reminds, “don’t forget that you were a couple first”, that your kids will one day leave and that you want to have something stable there when they do.

To protect that, she suggests to share your frustration with each other, give time for yourselves and each other and most importantly “never think you know what the other person is thinking – you’ll more than likely be wrong.”

If things are a little tense, Kelly suggests having a scheduled sitdown for a no-holds barred conversation about what’s been upsetting you and what you both need to make the situation better. “If communication has only been child-related or logistic, sometimes people forget how to communicate with each other.”

Other simple things include scheduling a date night or day once a month, providing it doesn’t add more stress to organise: “It can be something small like both of you taking the morning off work so that you can have breakfast together.” 

And a final word of advice from Kelly? No matter how under pressure you feel, your child’s needs are actually a lot more simple than you think:

As long as a child feels loved, safe and secure, that’s all that matters. People can be so hard on themselves – take the pressure off and just trust your own parenting style.

Read more from The Health Check:

Are you chilled out or burned out? Rate your stress levels here

Fighting a yawn or feeling refreshed? Rate your sleep here

Five-a-day or five takeaways a week? Rate your diet here

Smashing your PB or just catching your breath? Rate your fitness here 

Over the past few months as part of The Health Check, we’ve been capturing a snapshot of our health as a nation with Irish Life Health. We’ll be compiling anonymous, real-time ratings and talking to experts about the results and what they mean for our health. We know Irish Life. We are Irish Life Health.

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