The last few months have been especially trying for a few good friends of mine—for a bunch of random reasons. Flooding houses, broken bones, chronic pain, tragic loss, unexpected medical bills, rocky marriage. . . . It got me thinking about how stressful life can be, and how that plays itself out when we are trying to make dinner, or finish a phone call, or enjoy a complete thought.
I've been there. Even without drama, my anxiety can put me on edge about the most minor of issues. When I feel that way, my kids often suffer. I'm short with them, easily frustrated, and quickly overwhelmed with their never-ending questions about whether they can have candy or watch TV or just (add the whine), "When are we having diiiiiinnnnnerrrrrrr?"
It got me thinking that it might be a good reminder for all of us that when we know we are on edge, sometimes we need a self-inflicted time-out. And I'm not just talking about a few minutes locked in the bathroom. When life gets really heavy, it might be time to have a heart-to-heart with the partner parent (or whomever you can find to help you out).
It's hard to ask for help. It's hard to admit we need a break. But when we are stressed about big issues, there are things we can do to spare our children the overflow. Not only can it be a huge bummer for them when we easily fly off the handle, they pick up on our anxiety and it quickly creates more stress in them. Think about it. How do your kids tend to act when things have been tough? So often it's contagious.
Yes, it’s true, families often have to stress together. That's actually part of the deal. We are in this together.
But sometimes there are things that can be done to keep the crabbiness from spreading:
- You might need an hour or two. When things are crazy, often we feel like we have no time to spare, but understand that these extreme stresses require extreme responses. You might think, This isn't that big of a deal. I have to keep it together for everyone, pretend like everything is fine. Actually it would be more helpful if you just told your spouse (or someone) that you need some time to breathe because you feel like you are suffocating. Maybe during a break you can come up with an easy supper plan and some structure for the kids. Those are two elements that can always make a house easier to live in.
- Structure for the kids. Whether there has just been a death in the family, you are stressing about money, or you just got bad news . . . kids deal best in structure. Got a craft stuck in the back of the cabinet for a rainy day? Can someone run to Target and get some painting activities? Maybe the kids are a little older and they can be put to work making some comfort food like muffins or chocolate chip cookies. Tell your kids, "Look, things are tough today, so I need you to help me out. Please keep yourselves busy with this and after you're done we can enjoy what you made together. But for now, you do this, and I'll go away so I don't get my crabbiness all over you."
- Be honest. Be honest with yourself. Be honest with your spouse or your support structure. Call and unload on someone. This is what the community of God is for. We have to lean on one another. It allows your friend to serve you, and gives you the love you need. A listening ear can go a long way.
- Be realistic. Why do we pretend like we should be able to internalize everything and our kids will be unaffected? This is silly. It’s comparable to not preparing for a big winter storm or purposely leaving the sunscreen at home. When the world is coming at us with toxic elements, we have to respond. Taking precautions for our kids means considering how they will be caught in the crossfire. It doesn't mean we shelter them from all the issues. But it does mean they might appreciate some explanations. And maybe you remove yourself from them for an afternoon and give them time with a different trusted adult in their life (I'm a big advocate for our kids having multiple adults who are regularly involved and influential in their daily lives). Be realistic with yourself and others. And respect your kids enough to consider how all this is affecting them.
- Give the kids extra grace. If you are stressed, your kids know it. And there's a good chance they will act out in response. Be merciful. Obviously rules are rules. But they might need more hugs than discipline. They might need a reminder that they are secure and safe in your family, even when the world is throwing rocks at us. It could be that they even need some time alone themselves, depending on what is going on.
I suspect we all tend to think we should be able to deal with whatever life throws at us without much drama. In fact, we need to be ready to offer more grace to ourselves and our families. We are so easily isolated in our houses these days. Understand that God ordered the world for companionship, service, and support from one another. He did not intend for us to face these struggles alone or to pretend like everything is fine. As parents, let’s be aware of how contagious our crabby can be.