The festive season is a time of fun and celebration for most families. However, it can also be a time of stress and worry. The holiday period often means re-connecting with family, pressure from children to spend money on the latest gifts and gadgets, as well as negotiating care arrangements for children, which can all contribute to increased stress levels. Children are sensitive to adults’ responses to stress, so it is important to prioritise your own self-care during this busy period. When parents and carers look after themselves and feel supported, they are more able to provide their children with the best care. 

Recognising and acknowledging signs and symptoms of stress is an important part of parents and carers looking after themselves. Stress is the body’s reaction to change and overload and something we all experience. People experience stress differently, however it is something that is common to all of us. For the most part, stress is manageable, and small amounts can lead to motivation, alertness and energy.  However there are times when stress levels become heightened and sustained for long periods of time resulting in negative effects on physical and mental health. 

Everyone experiences stress differently but some common signs of stress include:

  • sleep disturbances

  • irritability

  • tiredness or lethargy

  • poor concentration

  • change in appetite – over or under eating

  • increase heart rate

  • mood swings

  • headaches 

  • decrease in motivation levels

Recognising signs of stress, as well as triggers, is an important first step in effective management.  Once stress has been identified, people can then move on to implementing strategies for managing stress.

Some examples of managing stress include:

Practising relaxation
Relaxation skills can help release both physical and emotional tension. Some ways to relax include: deep breathing, tensing and then releasing muscles or closing your eyes and imagining a calm place. When the muscles in people’s bodies are eased they stop a panic message from going to the brain, this allows feelings of physical and mental calmness. When these techniques are practised over time it helps to develop skills for coping with stressful events. KidsMatter and Smiling Mind share the common goal of promoting children’s mental health and wellbeing. The Smiling Mind mobile app provides information on mindfulness and exercises for both children and adults.

Reflecting on thoughts
The way people make sense of stressful events can influence their reaction. Sometimes it can feel as though stress is overwhelming. When people are able to take a step back from their stress, it allows them to think the situation through, feel more in control and able to cope. This can be an important step in finding a way to cope with stress. For example, when thoughts become overwhelming (“I just cannot deal with this situation right now”), they can become linked to unhealthy reactions to stress, and this ultimately lowers the ability to make decisions. After taking some time, a parent or carer might decide to talk to a trusted friend or family member or a health professional about their concerns.

Developing problem solving skills
It can be helpful to have a flexible way of dealing with stress. When people feel in control of a situation, they have less chance of feeling overwhelmed by it. To do this, it helps to think of strategies that have worked well in similar situations as well as potential new solutions.

Making healthy choices

Decisions about many things in life can impact on people’s mental health and wellbeing. When people are under stress, their ability to make considered decisions can be weakened. In times of stress, it is important to try and approach decisions calmly. It can be good to think of the pros and cons (both short-term and long-term) of a particular option and discuss them with someone else before making a big decision. Support from another person provides another perspective, and may help with decision making.

Stress can be managed so it is kept at a useful level. It is not stress itself, but adults’ reactions to stress, that impact on children.

Another important part of managing stress is connecting with other adults. This may be within the family unit or external to the family such as friends and work colleagues. Positive relationships provide opportunities to share problems as well as connect and have fun, and these supportive relationships can act as a barrier to stress. When we feel supported we are better equipped for managing life’s inevitable stress.

As people take care of themselves and maintain supportive relationships, these skills can be developed and one’s overall health and wellbeing is boosted. This can lead to resilience; people can be optimistic in understanding that even though there are challenging times in life, they have the skills and abilities needed to cope. Parents and carers respond best to life’s challenges when they have supportive relationships with family, friends, schools and early childhood staff and the community, and possess good personal social and emotional skills. In difficult situations, resilient parents and carers can draw on both their own skills and flexibility, and the support of others to help them cope. Resilient parents and carers are more likely to think and feel positively, which increases their ability to cope with challenges. Parents’ and carers’ resilience in life helps them to contribute to a healthy, happy child. 

One way children learn to cope is by watching what their parents and carers do to handle stress and difficult situations.