How to be a resilient parent
From a study by Center of the Study of Social Policy
Being a parent can be a very rewarding and joyful experience. But being a parent can also have its share of stress. Parenting stress is caused by the pressures (stressors) that are placed on parents personally and in relation to their child:
typical events and life changes (e.g., moving to a new city or not being able to soothe a crying baby)
unexpected events (e.g., losing a job or discovering your child has a medical problem)
individual factors (e.g., substance abuse or traumatic experiences)
social factors (e.g., relationship problems or feelings of loneliness and isolation)
community, societal or environmental conditions (e.g., persistent poverty, racism or a natural disaster)
Numerous researchers have concluded that how parents respond to stressors is much more important than the stressor itself in determining the outcomes for themselves and their children.
Parents are more likely to achieve healthy, favourable outcomes if they are resilient. Resilience is the process of managing stress and functioning well even when faced with challenges, adversity and trauma.
Some stressors parents face can be managed easily so that problems get resolved; for example, calling a relative or friend to pick-up a child from school when a parent is delayed. But some stressors cannot be easily resolved. For example, parents cannot “fix” their child’s developmental disability, erase the abuse they suffered as a child or be able to move out of a crime-plagued neighborhood.
Rather, parents are resilient when they are able to call forth their inner strength to proactively meet personal challenges and those in relation to their child, manage adversities, heal the effects of trauma and thrive given the unique characteristics and circumstances of their family.
Resilience relies on how we perceive our lives. So maybe we get nervous watching our child on stage for the first time; anxious and concerned, we start ruminating. Within those thoughts exist layers of assumptions, perspectives, and mental filters—I didn’t prepare her enough; she’s going to embarrass herself; I must do something to save her. If we feel our role is to protect kids from everything, that moment on stage becomes miserable. If we recognize we cannot shield our children from every hurt, but we’ve done our best, the experience changes—hope it goes well, but I’m here if it doesn’t.
We all have mental traps—habitual distortions that undermine emotional well-being. These pitfalls might represent thoughts like 'Asking for help' is an admission of failure. They include imagining the worst possible outcome of every situation or, alternatively, minimising and ignoring whatever overwhelms. All these distortions represent filters that twist perspective and pull us away from resiliency. We need to hold these patterns to the light and question ourselves: What is valid, if anything, and what isn’t useful? Is our view inflexible, reactive, or full of doubt? Without belittling ourselves or forcing ourselves to be unnaturally positive, we observe with curiosity and redirect ourselves until new habits develop.
Uncertainty and change are inevitable in life—doubly so for parents. Instinct drives us to worry and protect endlessly because we care more than anything about our families. But if the only relief we seek is striving to battle uncertainty into submission, that causes needless stress, as certainty never happens. We cannot and should not aim to control everything. Rather, we can shift our perspective to accept that stressful things happen over and over again. When we try to fix everything we face and reach for a perfect picture of happiness, we undermine our best intentions. The perception that parenting or any other part of life can be anything other than imperfect and changing pushes us far from our most skillful and resilient selves.
Demonstrating resilience increases parents’ self-efficacy because they are able to see evidence of both their ability to face challenges competently and to make wise choices about addressing challenges. Furthermore, parental resilience has a positive effect on the parent, the child and the parent-child relationship. By managing stressors, parents feel better and can provide more nurturing attention to their child, which enables their child to form a secure emotional attachment. Receiving nurturing attention and developing a secure emotional attachment with parents, in turn, fosters the
development of resilience in children when they experience stress.
Sometimes the pressures parents face are so overwhelming that their ability to manage stress is severely compromised. This is the case with parents who grew up in environments that create toxic stress. That is, as children, they experienced strong, frequent and prolonged adversity without the buffering protection of nurturing adult support. As a result, these parents may display symptoms of depression, anxiety, or other clinical disorders that inhibit their ability to respond consistently, warmly and sensitively to their child’s needs. For example, depressive symptoms in either mothers or
fathers are found to disrupt healthy parenting practices so that the child of a depressed parent is at increased risk of poor attachments, maltreatment and poor physical, neurological, social-emotional, behavioral and cognitive outcomes.
However, numerous research studies show parents can be helped to manage clinical symptoms and reactions to their own histories of poor attachments and trauma, to protect children from adversity and trauma as best they can and to provide more nurturing care that promotes secure emotional attachment and healthy development in their children.
All parents experience stress from time-to-time. Children learn more from what you do than what you say, so your resilience—the way they watch you approach adversity—affects theirs. Thus, parental resilience is a process that all parents need in order effectively manage stressful situations and help ensure they and their families are on a trajectory of healthy, positive outcomes.