How to Parent When You’re Stressed or Distracted or Worried

We're all feeling stressed these days and sometimes that stress can affect our parenting. Here are some ways to help you parent when you're stressed.

Illustration of parents parenting while distracted

We’ve all been there. We’re stressed about work, sad about life, worried about finances, bored (yes, sometimes, parenting is just simply boring). But our kids still need us to cook dinner, play games and help with homework (they never take a hint!).

It’s a relentless cycle: as humans, we worry. But it’s hard to worry while parenting, so we get even more anxious because we become concerned that our worries may ruin our children. Around and around we go.

We may not be able to zap your big issue, but we can help you handle your pint-size problems (your kids), helping you de-stress and achieve a calm, peaceful and meaningful family life.

Ease off the nonsense 

Successful parenting means prioritizing things in your life, says Derek Mihalcin, an Ohio-based psychologist. 

So, set aside whatever you can temporarily, to deal with parenting and with your own issues. This could mean letting your housework slide, allowing the laundry to pile up and skipping anything that’s not really necessary.

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Essentially, you’re in survival mode, just like you were when you had an infant: you simply need to keep your kids fed and alive (hummus, carrots and rotisserie chicken is healthy and is great for parenting in a pinch).

“You cannot be a superhero parent all the time who gets everything done and still has time to parent,” Mihalcin says.

Take notes 

When you’re distracted, you’re more likely to be forgetful, according to researchers from Brigham Young University. It’s called “pattern separation:” the sadder and more distracted you feel, the more difficult it is for you to distinguish between your experiences — so you’re less likely to remember them. Basically, your life becomes blurry. And when that happens, you’ll have difficulty concentrating, and you won’t be able to focus on anything long enough to remember it. 

Carry around a notebook or use a notes app so you can jot down everything from school pick-up times to the last time you nursed, says Jacqueline Pirtle, holistic practitioner and author of Parenting Through the Eyes of Lollipops

Another good reason to keep that notebook close: when you write down everything that’s on your mind, you’re getting those thoughts out of your head and onto the paper. They’re not your full focus anymore, yet you won’t forget those ideas or concerns, Pirtle says.

Turn off your notifications

When you’re worried about something, your mind is filled with what ifs. The last thing you need is more distractions, and it’s not necessary to be notified throughout the day of potential triggers.

So, turn off anything that may trigger you, says Miyume McKinley, licensed clinical social worker. For example, if you’re trying to get pregnant, it’s not going to be fun to keep seeing pregnancy announcements on social media. Six percent of Americans check the news every hour, and 20 percent monitor their social media constantly — and studies find that this constant exposure to the negative information can produce anxiety and can even fuel physical ailments. 

If you have enough on your plate, this needs to be the first to go.

Set a timer for 5 minutes 

It’s hard to give your child one-on-one special attention when you’re stressed. But one way to get around this is to give them very short bursts of concentrated attention, says Kate Orson, author of Tears Heal: How to Listen to Our Children

“Ten, or even just five minutes can make a difference, and aren’t too taxing on our brains when we are struggling,” Orson says. She describes it as “special time:” tell your kids that they can choose what they want to do for their five minutes. Turn your phone off and try your best to avoid distractions so you can focus on being with your child and enjoying their presence while they’re doing their favorite activity.

Yes, five or 10 minutes seems so meager, but that time spent with you is so much better than an hour with you when you’re looking at your phone every other second.

Share your anxiety

Just like Alexander (you know, the boy who had the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day), adults also have bad days.

“I think one of the mistakes we make as mothers is trying to hide the negative emotions we feel from our children. I believe that sets them up for a false perception of how to deal with their own negative emotions,” says Christine Carter, creator of Mompreneur and Me

While Carter’s children may not be able to process that she has anxiety, they’re aware that she visits a therapist to talk about the times she feels overwhelmed. Her kids also understand that she needs alone time after work for an hour each night. “As a result, my children speak freely and honestly with me about their emotions, and since children are entitled to having bad days, they understand what it means to retreat momentarily in the name of self-care,” Carter says.

Explain to your children that you need alone time because you’re having a bad day, too.

Set reminders 

You’re distracted. You’ve become forgetful. You’re essentially a hot mess. So set alarms on your phone for pick-ups and drop-offs. Even add reminders to call your partner and tell them how much you love them, to give your kids a hug and to take a coloring break with them, says Adina Mahalli, a certified mental health consultant and family care specialist.

Allow more time in your schedule 

We’re all stressed about time (there’s never enough!) but a study by Swedish researchers found that this affects mothers the most. That’s because women combine chores, childcare and work duties while men tend to focus simply on work, according to the study.

It’s a lot to juggle in a limited amount of time. More specifically, the women most affected are either financially stressed, lacking in social support or highly educated. Findings show that people habitually underestimate how long it takes to get things done.

So, for example, you may think it should only take your child five minutes to put on his shoes, but in reality, it probably takes about 15. Once you accept reality (yes, he will want to stop and smell the flowers during your walk to school, so add 10 minutes to that walk) and adjust your time expectations, allowing yourself extra time should help.

Always running late? A study by at San Diego State University separated people into Type A and Type B groups. The study asked each group how long it took for 60 seconds to pass, without looking at the clock. Type A believed that a minute passed after 58 seconds, while Type B believed it passed after 77 seconds. 

So, if you understand that you constantly underestimate time, it may make practical sense to set reminders.

Touch your children 

Gently stroke your child’s hair, arm or back in a loving way. “They are getting a loving touch from you that is soothing to the soul, even if they don’t have your full attention at the time,” says Bracha Goetz, author of 38 children’s books.

In fact, a study finds that affectionate touch activates your orbitofrontal cortex (the part of the brain associated with emotional and social behaviors). Touch also decreases depression and helps with immunity, so it may help you, too.

Stop multitasking 

You’re probably cooking dinner while trying to help your child with his homework while thinking through whatever is making you stressed or exhausted. Plus, work, spouse stuff and life.

“If you’ve ever had to ask a friend or partner, ‘Are you still listening to me?’ then you’ve experienced how frustrating and upsetting it can be to try to meaningfully connect with a person who is distracted,” says Megan Robin, a California-based mindset coach for new mothers who helps new moms navigate the transition to motherhood.

Children are very intuitive, and they know when their parents are distracted (perhaps that’s why they always bombard us with questions whenever we take a phone call?), Robin says. This can cause your kids to escalate their bids for your attention, leading you to feel even more overwhelmed and stressed.

Plus, multitasking doesn’t even work. French scientists found that when you multitask, your brain splits in half, so you are more likely to forget the details, and you are three times more likely to make mistakes.

Instead of trying to multitask, set aside clearly defined, pre-planned times to spend with your child and be fully present during those times.

Remind yourself of what’s happening right now 

Stress, depression and worry often lead parents who are preoccupied to have a hard time focusing or concentrating on tasks.

So, you’ll need to anchor yourself in the present moment, says Yael Katzman, a psychotherapist. Some ways to do this are by reminding yourself of the date or the time, or just by using visual aids: I’m home, I’m with my kids, I’m capable of managing just what is in front of me and nothing more.

“It’s like driving through a heavy fog with your lights on,” Katzman says. “All you can see are the 200 feet right in front of you, and that is all you can focus your attention on.”

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