Thirteen Tips for stressed-out Mothers

Recently a client asked me to help her develop a few good ideas how she could react differently to the every-day stress situations involving both of her (in this case a two and six year old) children. („Differently“ in this case means: other than reacting under pressure, in a foul mood, yelling, doubting motherhood or considering to make the kids available for adoption). Since these and similar questions seem to be the perennial subject in family therapies, I figured that it would be worthwhile to put our collective effort into writing and make it available to you who may be facing similar problems. In case you are also a mother (or father) you may even find this or the other suggestion to be helpful.

Tip Nr. 1

Facing the next difficult situation with your child (my client’s example for this was: At the supermarket check-out the two-year old screams like a banshee and throws himself on the ground because he doesn’t get that lollypop, while all those present look at his mother reproachfully – or so she thinks): Try to accept the situation for what it actually is. That means: Don’t make this situation worse by berating yourself with thoughts like: “Everybody but me can control his/her child!” – “God, this is embarrassing, what are people only thinking of me!” – “As a mother I am a total failure!”

Instead, be kind to yourself – here the appropriate key word is self-empathy (and that is totally different than self-pity) and to yourself say things like: “That is just like children are, he’ll eventually calm down.” – „Well, it is their own fault if they arrange the candy right next to the check-out in front of the children’s nose and within their grasp– don’t blame the kid!” By the way one can also easily practice this caring attitude in difficult situations vis-à-vis oneself by more frequently posing the question: “If that, which happens to me just now would happen to my best friend, what would I tell him/her - how would I treat him/her?”

Tip Nr. 2

At the point when you are about to hit the roof because your child does not act as you would want or expect him/her just ask yourself: “Assuming he/she doesn’t act like this out of spite because he/she wants to make me mad – what positive, or at least kinder interpretations for my child’s behavior could I try to come up with?” My client’s example for this involved her six-year old: She even tends to ignore the third call for a meal when playing or she is otherwise occupied. Up to now, this had been something my client had seen as being spiteful or being indifferent vis-à-vis herself or the family. After thinking about it for awhile she said: “In those situations she probably actually doesn’t hear me because she is that engrossed in her playing. Looking at it from a positive point of view, she just has a high ability to concentrate and an especially vivid imagination! Both of which are ultimately something wonderful!”

Here the important lesson is the understanding that a child’s perceived “disobedient” behavior in a situation such as this is normally never intended to create anger but is motivated by something entirely different. With that most of the angry reaction that the mom or dad feels coming on evaporates and that makes it a lot easier to properly handle the situation.

Tip Nr. 3

Khalil Gibran writes: “Your children are not your children . . .” – however in a totally practical sense they obviously are and therefore they have inherited a lot from you even though at first glance it may not be evident. In difficult situations with them you may be able to leverage that: Simply think of yourself at that age. Is it possible that you occasionally acted in certain situations similarly “difficult” just like your child here and now? If yes, just take your time and think: What (again) is it that you would have needed in a similar situation in order to act differently? Then make the effort and see whether this would also help your child here and now!

My client’s example for this again involved her six-year old. Last fall she went to school for the first time and homework is already a battle (especially when it deals with copying letters). After giving it some thought my client remembered that as a child she also rebelled against repetition intensive tasks (for example finger exercises on the piano) simply because they bored her to death. Based on this perception (“this task bores my daughter” instead of “my daughter is lazy and doesn’t want to do her homework”) it was easy for her to develop some ideas to make tasks like that a little less boring for the child (for instance by letting her alternate among different exercises, to write with multi-colored pencils, etc.).

Tip Nr. 4

This is actually a classic successfully used in critical situations by many families as a “Time out!” technique, most importantly it already works real well beginning with 3-year olds: The yellow and the red card trick. Just as in most team sports the yellow card signals: “What you just did wasn’t OK, get a hold of yourself!” The red card: “Clear breach of a rule – not acceptable!” In advance one must obviously exactly explain and lay down the consequences resulting from a red card (and that has to be appropriate to the family’s environment and corresponding to the child’s age) but that is also just as with every team sport like soccer, football or ice hockey. Whoever does not like the red or yellow card and together with the children can always fashion and hang a traffic light ranging from green to red and additionally install markings with clothespins. Or use Smileys . . . or . . . or . . . there are no limits to the imagination. It has been my experience, the more individually this family warning system has been designed, the more effectively it is going to do its duty in critical situations by keeping things from accelerating. (But caution please: Don’t use it inflationary – if every triviality immediately results in the “award” of a yellow or even red card the whole thing loses its effect!)

Tip Nr. 5

In the course of our conversation, it was my client’s banal as well as important insight that in my experience every mother already knows: When tired, nervous and stressed-out one reacts to critical situations with the child totally differently (and generally not necessarily in control!) than having to face the same situation rested, relaxed with energy reserves. Therefore Tip Nr. 5 is: Also and especially as a mom please consistently take care that your own batteries are never that dead that you can’t help but ‘loosing it’ under stress! In other words: From the inception create periodic time-outs from the child (children) and household (and even if its only half an hour in between!). If at all possible rigorously enlist the help you can get from others (yes, even salaried baby sitters - that is well spent money, believe me!) Then really use the time-off for yourself and entirely without feeling guilty: for hobbies, relaxation exercises, reading, daydreaming, sports (please also refer to the following tip), whatever you enjoy!

Tip Nr. 6

. . . has lots to do with Nr. 5 and implies: By all means and in case you have not done that yet, also create the opportunity for physically blowing off steam as a continuing component of your week. That could be a boxing lesson, time to jog, dance sport exercises . . . no matter what. There is nothing better to reduce stress hormones than physical activities and exertion, simultaneously releasing endorphins (= feel-good hormones) while your sense of self-worth increases as an additional benefit! Those are the best preconditions for you to be a lot more relaxed on the next day and instead of easily loose your cool.

Tip Nr. 7:
Just as important for your regular emotional relief: Start writing about your daily chores, burdens, what aggravates you (diary, stories, blog . . .)! Many studies have demonstrated that getting things off your chest this way often works miracles. Beyond that it helps to see many things more clinically and thus to better assess them. There are also Internet forums dedicated to mothers where they can just “unload” and let others in the same situation comfort them. For instance on Facebook relevant „mommy“ groups downright explode because the demand for them is overwhelming. Some mothers sometimes benefit by painting, doodling or other artistic endeavors for shedding any anger even more. Best of all: Find your very own mode of expression!

Tip Nr. 8

. . . is related to Tip Nr. 7: Go ahead, occasionally swear like a trooper (that works best without the installed lady censor in the back of your head who keeps telling you that children are always pure joy and motherhood is every woman’s dream). Also, don’t do it when the kids are listening but preferably at your best friend’s, if in doubt maybe with a therapist or just in one of the under Tip Nr. 7 mentioned mother-platforms on the Internet.

Tip Nr. 9

Originates from the collection of “paradox interventions” and is one I dearly love because it works so well: In the evening of a really stupid day when your little darlings drove you to the edge of a nervous breakdown stand in front of a mirror and hold a dramatic monologue! (You are welcome to have your partner join you.) In that process massively escalate your fury at those impossible brats whom you put carelessly into this world in a weak moment. Really go to town and exaggerate your lamenting as much as possible: “I have the most awful child in the whole wide world and am stuck with the worst life ever!” You are probably already aware of the effect: With a monologue like this nobody really gets far without a laughing fit about him/herself, his/her very own heroics and that REALLY relaxes.

Tip Nr. 10

Occasionally consciously try to discover the funny side of the respective difficult situation (and in case it just won’t work in the here and now, maybe even afterwards). That can easily be practiced by occasionally consuming funny movies or books on the subject family, humorously describing the daily mini debacles with children (Erma Bombeck who unfortunately as already passed comes to mind, but also movies like „We‘re the Millers“, „Four Christmases“ or „Kevin home alone“ . . . whatever your taste.) It also works well to get yourself a funny daily calendar with cartoons on the subject family (for instance “Baby Blues” or „Family Guy“ . . .) always reminding us of the inherent humor of that every day chaos. Humor is a wonderful method for distancing yourself from the immediate events and develop a more relaxed point of view.

Tip Nr. 11

My absolute favorite (I have already done this a couple of times during family therapies quasi as model and the success was always truly spectacular): In a situation that makes you angry, react absolutely over the top and in a way the child never expected. My client still has this experiment ahead of her (I can’t wait for the after action report!) but has already in advance for example reflected on this scenario: At the next opportunity she‘ll lay down in the supermarket cash register line right next to her at full blast screaming two-year old and join him in yelping: “I want a lollipop tooooooo!!!!!”. Another very effective idea: The next time when your kid drives you up the wall again, start singing at the top of your voice (preferably: “You are the sunshine of my life”) while you are dancing around him/her at the same time.

What you are doing basically makes no difference – it is only important: to simply being out of character and doing something totally unexpected. Admittedly, that takes a certain amount of nerve and outside of one’s own four walls that is probably going to raise a few eyebrows by the audience, but first of all this can really be a lot of fun (honestly!!) and secondly one totally and sustainably baffles the child and immediately de-fuses the situation. (Obviously one can’t do that all the time but that is not even necessary – in later situations only the memory is generally sufficient in helping the child as well as the mom to be “wired” differently).

Tip Nr. 12

In case you don’t have one yet: Get yourself a book dealing with children’s age-typical behavior! Reading it will keep you from expecting that children are wired, think and “function” like adults because purely for biological and neurological reasons they simply aren’t and can’t. Therefore it makes no sense to have those expectations and only makes life difficult for everybody involved. A Spanish saying: “No le pidas peras al olmo”. Translated that means “Don’t expect a pear from an elm”, quite the same as „You can‘t get blood from a stone“. Highly to be recommended books on the subject are for instance: „The Wonder Weeks“, „Growing Up!“ and „When Anger Hurts Your Kids“. You will help yourself to automatically develop a totally different perspective about your children’s apparently “bad” or “selfish” behavior patterns – and at the same time get a lot less upset about them.

Tip Nr. 13

This basically consists of only one sentence but I believe that every parent in the whole wide world should hang it in a golden frame in the children’s room to make them never forget: “Love me when I least deserve it, because that's when I really need it.”

By the way, it has been my experience that this usually is also true for grown-ups ...