Ease Parenting Stress Through Mastery

“I had to love her enough to let her hate me.” It was a stunning and very wise thing that Carol Burnett said to the ladies on The View. Burnett said she was scared of her daughter — of saying the wrong thing, making her angry, pushing her away. (She was talking about her late daughter Carrie’s three-year struggle with addiction when she was a teen.)

While Burnett’s situation was extreme, her experience isn’t unusual. Scared, stressed-out parenting has become epidemic: many parents today feel overwhelmed and under-adequate. Always waiting for the other shoe to drop. Navigating life with kids as a series of crisis management incidents and tactical maneuvers. Not only is that an unpleasant way to live, research shows that parental stress reduces children’s wellbeing. A powerful antidote for stress is action, when it cultivates mastery.

Are You Suffering with This Epidemic?

  • Ease Parenting Stress Through Mastery | Marcy Axness PhDDo you find yourself feeling either vaguely or extremely anxious much of the time?
  • Are you worried that you might be missing some crucial opportunity to optimize your child’s success?
  • Are you afraid of alienating your child if you use discipline?
  • Do you feel overstretched, overcommitted, overscheduled or overwrought?
  • Do you harbor secret fears that you’re just not up to the task of parenting?

If you answer “Yes” to any of these questions, you’re not alone. And it’s not your fault — our culture actually encourages it! Parenting stress is everywhere, and it definitely gets in the way of being the parents we want and hope to be. So, why is stress the new black? Here’s the “stress trifecta” as I see it:

Too much information: The unrelenting stream of data (emails, tweets, posts, pings, chirps, etc.) that bombards most of us these days can actually enter the realm of trauma. (Trauma is, by definition, “overwhelming experience” — too much incoming stimuli, which the nervous system cannot process adequately.)

Too many choices: Bless our mothers and grandmothers for what they achieved in breaking glass ceilings everywhere with the women’s movement, but it can kind of bite us in the butt, so to speak. We’re now faced with a near-paralyzing array of choices. CAN we have it all? Should we want to? Endless choices whirl around us, their thrum generating an unnerving back-beat that can pound through our days.

Too little confidence: Our culture (particularly screened media) almost systematically erodes the confidence of mothers and fathers. (You’re not quite enough — but if you buy this gadget, employ this system, or dress them in this label, the just maybe you’ll fulfill your parental potential.) That, together with how our own early childhood material comes up when we’re parenting, too often results in parents lacking the inner calm, loving authority that our children so need us to have.

Grow Bigger Shoulders

In the course of working through these same issues with so many parents, I began inviting them to “grow bigger shoulders.” What do I mean by that? Here it is in 57 seconds:

By the way, this does not mean being a doormat. Boundaries are in place. Misbehavior is recognized as mistakes, and mistakes are noted and corrected. All with (most of the time) a tranquil heart, a gentle voice and relaxed face. <Insert needle-scratch here> WHAT???!!! How the heck does one do that, you may ask.

Ease Parenting Stress Through Mastery | Marcy Axness PhDFor one thing — to echo Carol Burnett’s epiphany — I invite you to heed psychologist John Breeding’s wise advice: “Make peace with disappointing your child or go crazy.” One of the challenges many parents meet in setting boundaries, redirecting unacceptable behavior, and denying dire requests (another term for whining, usually as you run the gauntlet of a toy store or any supermarket check-out, for example) is confronting their own guilt, insecurity and fear of disappointing their children. (This is one place our own history can get in the way: memories of having been disappointed by our own parents can be reawakened, which muddies up our clarity as a loving leader for our kids.)

Along with that is the discomfort many of us have — it’s cultural — regarding the value of emotional expression. When our children cry, scream or melt down, especially in public, it can push all our buttons. And the example you set by surmounting your inner struggles to attain the mastery to kindly but firmly say “Not this time,” despite a full court press, is one of the greatest gifts you can give your children. It won’t be many years before you will want them to be able to do the very same thing: say “no” in the face of conflicting feelings, high emotions and intense (peer) pressure!

Ease Parenting Stress Through Mastery

We cultivate mastery through practice, and usually with some guidance. This is true in any endeavor where art meets skill, whether it’s in sports, music, painting or parenting. My new favorite show (please don’t judge me) is Splash. I watch it with tears in my eyes for most of the hour, because I find it incredibly moving and inspiring to witness these famous, accomplished people push their edges and walk through the fire of their fears as they cultivate increasing levels of mastery of the scary sport of high-diving.

Key to mastery in anything is securing and learning to use the most helpful tools. Sometimes tools are tangible (how would those new divers ever learn flips without the trampoline, safety harness and pulleys??) and sometimes they are intangible. I loved hearing Greg Louganis tell Rory Bushfield — who couldn’t actually practice his flip into the water due to a ruptured eardrum — “Best thing you can do is stand on the end of the platform and visualize the dive.” Visualizing how they want to handle themselves in certain challenging parenting moments is a tool I use with parent clients all the time!

Here’s a silly little example of the helpfulness of tools — it occurred to me a little while ago as I made my protein shake. I include a raw egg yolk in my shakes (always pastured eggs!), and sometimes the date on my egg carton has passed by a week or even two. Wondering if that egg is still good or if it might make me sick could be a source of stress to me in that moment, if I didn’t know a nifty little fool-proof tool for judging the soundness of a raw egg: put it into a glass or bowl of water and if it sinks, it’s fine. If it floats, toss it. (And if it hovers sort of half-way…still toss it!) As with my egg dealings, having solid insights and reference points from which to make choices — for yourself, for your children — can greatly ease parenting stress.

With mastery comes confidence, and with confidence comes mastery — it’s a feed-forward loop of unfolding your potential. Find tools that bring you increased confidence, and your stress will diminish. As your stress diminishes you’ll make choices with more tranquility, and you’ll look back on parenting moments with your children with more pride. As your inner life is nourished through this unfolding, you will feel more serene and centered in the face of the daily avalanche of information that is part of life today.

And your shoulders will grow bigger.

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