As we’re carried away by endless to-do lists and worries, it’s easy to miss the signs and effects of stress on the family.
Claudia Abelheim, educational psychologist and head of the Family Life Centre’s Youth Services, says stress is on the rise – and not only for adults. In fact, it’s now extremely common for entire families to feel immense pressure and be exposed to stress in one way or another. Although each family member might experience different kinds of stress, she says, they’re all likely to be affected in unique ways, which can add to overall familial stress in a harmful cycle.
Signs that your family is stressed out
If you’re struggling under a mountain of stress, chances are your family’s feeling the effects too. According to Claudia, the seven most important signs to look out for include:
1. Changes in sleeping patterns
‘This is one of the most common signs of stress,’ says Claudia. These changes can manifest in different ways for different family members, but any great difference in normal sleeping patterns can be a sign of stress. ‘Oversleeping,
struggling to fall asleep, frequent waking at night and not sleeping at all are all factors to look out for,’ she cautions.
‘When people are stressed, they usually become distant and withdraw from each other. This is because they have a lot on their mind and may find it difficult to focus on anything or anyone else,’ explains Claudia.
3. Less quality time spent together
When we’re stressed, we often stop doing the very things that would help us feel better. ‘Often, stressed families stop prioritising things like family dinners or weekend outings. This results in further withdrawal, which can feed into a vicious cycle and cause more stress,’ says Claudia.
4. Physical illness
‘It’s now widely accepted that stress can have dire effects on one’s health,’ explains Claudia. ‘Children, in particular, often show their stress in physical ways before they’re able to articulate it.’
5. Increased fighting
‘Families who are stressed often take it out on each other. There are more arguments and more shouting at each other because when people are stressed, their fuses tend to be much shorter. Unfortunately, the people who land up bearing the brunt of our stress are usually those we’re closest to.’
6. Difficulty at work or school
‘Stressed people have so much on their minds that they struggle to focus on other important matters. Stress reduces our ability to concentrate and prioritise, which has a significant impact on work and studies.’
‘Whether as a result of less sleep or simply due to the high mental load we’re carrying, one sure sign of stress is a constant feeling of exhaustion. This is especially noticeable when you’re getting enough sleep, but still feel very tired
throughout the day,’ says Claudia.
Common causes of stress within families
As we continue to feel the pinch of a volatile economy and the rising cost of living, parents often feel the added pressure of wanting to provide the very best for their children. Aside from the basic necessities of food, a stable
home, medical care, schooling and transport – which can be crippling expenses on their own – there’s the added perception that expensive pieces of tech, such as laptops, smartphones and gaming consoles, are also essentials. The struggle to afford the life you want for your kids can feel like a constant uphill battle and be a major source of stress and anxiety.
Much like their parents, kids today are busier than they’ve ever been before, with more homework and extramurals and less time to play. When both parents have full-time jobs, this can be exceptionally difficult to manage. Constantly
rushing from one thing to another and never feeling on top of things is all part of this fast-paced lifestyle, creating high levels of stress for everyone in the family.
Pressure related to work and school
Just as you may find yourself lying awake at night, running through the seemingly endless demands of work and scrambling to keep on top of it all, children are under huge pressure to excel academically – and the amount of work needed to do so is growing every year. This leaves children with levels of stress that are becoming increasingly
difficult – and sometimes impossible – for them to deal with.
How might stress manifest differently in children?
‘We often see stress in children manifesting as physical ailments, which typically include stomach aches and headaches. Younger children may start displaying fearful behaviour, such as fear of the dark or of being alone,
while older children may be withdrawn or have difficulty focusing. It’s important to be aware of any major changes
in children’s behaviour,’ says Claudia – particularly given the fact that parents are often largely unaware of their
children’s stress levels. One study found that while one in five kids worry a great deal about what’s going on in their lives, only 8% of parents believe their child is experiencing a lot of stress. Research has also found links between the stress levels of parents and those of their kids, with parents who experience burnout at work being more likely to have teens who feel burnt out at school.
Is your teen lazy or stressed?
A study revealed that teens often turn to low-energy activities in an attempt to deal with stress. It was found that when
- 41% play video games.
- 66% listen to music.
- 30% watch TV.
How should family stress be handled?
Claudia highlights the importance of making time to have fun and relax together as a family. ‘In our frenetic lives, this has become even more of a priority and will give family members an opportunity to reconnect with each other and forget about their stresses for a while.’ She recommends planning family activities that involve exercise, such as
hiking or taking the dogs for a walk, to help everyone blow off a little steam. You could also try:
Addressing the cause of the stress
Sit down together and discuss what steps you can all take to address or remove the stressors and how you can all support each other. If your kids are feeling too much pressure as a result of an overloaded schedule, agree on an activity they can remove to free up some of their time for relaxation, for example. If it’s you who feels overloaded, draw up a schedule of chores they can help with to allow you some time to rest.
Acknowledging their stress
Start a conversation with your family and let them know you see they’re struggling. It can help them simply to know that someone’s aware of their difficulties and cares about the way they feel, and getting their worries out into the
open could be just what’s needed to relieve some of the pressure.
Reach out for support
Often, the more stressed we become, the more we withdraw from others. However, connection with others can be the most effective way to get through hard times and provide us with the support we need to get back on our feet. As a family and as individuals, make sure you spend time with friends you can comfortably talk to and ask for advice.
Family counselling is a great way to learn how to help each other cope with problems. Individual counselling for some family members can also help reduce their stress, breaking the cycle of stress experienced by the family. To set up an
appointment, visit: Familylife.co.za or tel: 011 788 4784.
FEATURE: CAITLIN GENG PHOTO: STOCK.ADOBE.COM