Hey parents. Relax.
In a world obsessed with chronicling every little achievement and milestone – is the Grade Three graduation ceremony this week or next? – many parents have a hard time taking a deep breath and just letting things be. And they are passing the anxiety on to their children.
Parenting expert Ellen Galinsky spoke at the Aspen Ideas Festival this week about the results from a survey that asked children: "What message would you like to give the parents of America?" The top wish, The Atlantic reported, was for their parents to be less tired and stressed. Even Tiger Mom Amy Chua, who took part in the talk, agreed that things have gotten out of hand. And if she can relax – she once made her daughter play a difficult piano piece for hours on end with no food or bathroom breaks – then there's no reason everyone else can't take a breather.
"Parents need to ditch their own stress," says Burlington, Ont.-based Opti-Mom blogger Laurel Crossley "They model stress and stressful behaviours to their children, so stressed-out parents create stressed-out kids."
Easier said than done – but as we head into another activity-filled weekend, why not shoot for a more relaxing time at home?
1. Be aware of when the stress dial starts to rise
Try to recognize when your kids start acting anxious, says Ms. Crossley. "Recognize stress in your own kids and keep your behaviour in check," she says. "Stress manifests itself in kids very differently. Some shut down, some scream and yell, some have anxiety or panic attacks, some lash out at other kids. Be cognizant of their symptoms."
But don't obsess – just because you're a stressy mess doesn't mean everyone else is too.
"Don't just assume because you have stress that your children will too," she says. "Children don't have the same cognitive development as adults, and diagnosing them can actually exacerbate their stress levels."
2. Stop the pre-emptive nagging
Don't you just love it when your boss stands over your shoulder and reminds you of all the things you need to do? Guess what – your kids hate to be treated like that too.
"One big stressor for kids is parents who ride them all the time," says blogger and psychotherapist Alyson Schafer. "I hear kids complain that they were about to pick up their bag in the front hall, but before they could even have a chance to show their parents they were going to do the right thing, the parents started barking instructions."
Her advice? Wait for a little bit and if you must say something, do it in as few words as possible so they don't feel like you are always in their face. "Instead of, 'How many times do I have to tell you this foyer is not a dumping ground for your crap,' try just saying 'bag,'" she says. "Even better, just point."
3. You don't have to do everything they ask (Also known as: Make your own sandwich)
There's an unwritten rule of parenting that says the kids will want something the minute you can't easily give it to them. On the phone? Bake me a pie. Cutting the lawn? Get me a Popsicle.
While the intuitive thing is to stop what you're doing and cater to every little whim, regardless of how superficial or ridiculous, try asking them to do it themselves.
It may freak them out the first few times they are forced to make their own peanut-butter sandwich, but once they realize they are able to fend for themselves they often relax and ease up on the breathless demands.
"It's hard to see why this helps at first but we are overdoing it for our children," says Beverly Cathcart-Ross, of Toronto's The Parenting Network. "They have a lot of energy, and it's fun for them to pitch in even if they resist at first. If you don't find a way for them to be useful, they are going to find a way to be useless."
4. Stop obsessing over your teenager's bedtime
Teenagers are largely ridiculous creatures who don't yet appreciate the understated beauty of an early bedtime.
During the school year parents will berate them to get them to bed at a decent hour, for good reason – they have to make it to class on time. But many parents continue to pester through the summer, when the stakes are low.
"If they want to stay up later a couple of nights than their parents to watch movies and then sleep in the next day, then make that a collaborative decision," says Ms. Cathcart-Ross. "Often parents aren't very good at that."
5. Lower your expectations
The pressure that parents put on their kids to meet high expectations (why just "participate" when you can be MVP?) has even the happiest children second-guessing their hobbies and worried about how they are viewed.
"Parents have to stop living through their children," says Gail Bell, co-founder of Calgary's Parentingpower.ca. "Way too many parents are pushing their kids, and telling them what they will be doing."
When it comes to extracurricular activities, parents tend to overschedule, thinking their kids will eventually thank them, when really they would rather be doing anything else. The world's most successful people weren't forced into an activity, Ms. Bell argues. "Take Sidney Crosby. Does he have talent? You bet, but he also has passion for the game," she says. "I have heard his parents had to drag him in off the ice rink at night. It was Sidney that was pushing himself, not his parents pushing him."