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Stressed out? Don’t let it affect your kids

In another excerpt from her book "Laying Down the Law," Dr. Ruth Peters advises parents on managing the stress of a hectic life.</p><p><strong><br /><br /></strong></p>

Today in "Weekend Parenting" we continue a series of excerpts from “Laying Down the Law: The 25 Laws of Parenting to Keep Your Kids on Track, Out of Trouble, and (Pretty Much) Under Control,” the most recent book by “Today” show contributor Dr. Ruth Peters.

Law #23:
Keep Your Cool
Don’t kid yourself, you can’t do everything. The more you try to cram into your kid’s day, the more stress and strain it puts on your family life. Don’t forget, having a family is supposed to be fun! Prioritize, delegate, breathe deeply, and smile. Your patience and attention are some of the most valuable gifts you can give your child.

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Face it, you’re only human. Sure, you had this vision of doing it all — working in a career, raising kids, and even fitting in some fun time with your spouse or just by yourself. Then reality hits and you’ve realized that this multitasking stuff just isn’t what it was cracked up to be. Far from feeling like we have it all, this Jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none approach leaves most parents feeling like we never quite seem to have enough of anything. And at the same time, we have too much — too many responsibilities, too many things to do, too many things we have to learn with too little time to deal with them. This stress triggers anxiety, edginess, and a lack of tolerance and patience with family members — especially with the kids.

This reminds me of one of my favorite clients, Diane. Check this out — she’s a single mom of three very rambunctious girls. She receives, in her opinion, insufficient child support and therefore works two jobs. After dropping her angels off at grade school, she rushes to meet her first client at the hair salon. Not only does she do hair, but she also listens to problems all day long and has to be nice about it! Believe me, I know that’s no picnic! (But at least I don’t have to cut bangs during my sessions.) At 3:30 p.m. she’s back at the kids’ school in the car pickup line, taking the girls to their grandmother’s for after-school care. Grandma fixes them all a very early dinner (thank goodness), and Diane at least gets to eat with the kids. Then it’s off to the gym where she teaches aerobics classes until 7:30 p.m. Back in the car, pick up the kids (again, thank goodness that Grandma has supervised their homework), and on to the bedtime ritual.

One of the girls is in charge of nuking the popcorn, while the others put away the day’s stuff and tidy up the house. Diane takes a shower, and they watch a half-hour of television or play a board game while chomping down their snack. Then it’s time for baths, teeth brushing, and a snuggle as each girl is tucked into bed. Then Diane gets to hit the sack. Not a lot of fun, but this woman is trying hard to keep it all together and the family is getting by.

It wasn’t always this tight, though. When she was married to Rich, she worked 3 days a week as a hair stylist and was able to pick up the girls from school and fix dinner most nights. The older two were in ballet, and there was always time to visit Grandma or go to the park so that the girls could run off some steam. Since their separation and divorce 2 years ago, Diane has adapted to her hectic schedule and does her best to keep the family on track. But she is running out of patience. She recently noted to me that she gets snippy with her mother — even though without her help she’d be up a creek — and intolerant of her clients’ whining and complaining about the inconveniences in their lives. If they only knew what Diane was going through!

And then there are the girls. Even the best-behaved children can come across as demanding or whiney at times, and this mom has just about had it. Being responsible not only for herself but for the well-being of three little ones can be overwhelming, especially when finances are tight and time is limited. I told her that it wouldn’t be unusual for anyone in her situation and with her tight schedule to be short-tempered and snippy with their children. In fact, she’s behaved rather admirably under the circumstances. She needed to give herself a break and to accept that at this point in her life, at least, things will not be as calm, easy, or comfortable as she’d like for her family. It’s tough to accept that, but once you do, you can relax a bit and quit piling on the guilt!

Now I realize that Diane’s situation is somewhat extreme, but keeping your cool as a parent can be tough for just about anyone. And the stress is often exacerbated if you’re edgy about your job, short on time, have kids with lots of extracurricular activities, or your children are especially noncompliant

No one, and let me repeat that, no one can keep their patience all of the time. It’s an emotional impossibility so don’t even try to go there! What is realistic, though, is to strive to make some changes that will allow you to become a more patient parent, and the entire family will reap the rewards.

Patience is truly a gift, as well as a skill to be developed. As with acquiring any other talent, it takes practice, compromise, and actually setting a goal. Try baby steps first, such as counting to 10 before raising your voice, and then moving on to higher-level skills such as developing a different perspective or changing your parenting and family priorities. I’m sure that there will be setbacks, but the more you keep your cool with your children, the less stress there will be in your household or carpool. And your kids will take notice and just might begin to model a more tolerant attitude themselves!

Living the Law
Keep your expectations realistic.
Remember that there are only 24 hours in a day, and some of that must be devoted to work (at the office or at home), transportation, mealtimes, sleep, extracurricular activities, checking homework, and organizing for the next day. Trying to stuff 28 hours of activity into 24 never works well, and the entire day may feel incomplete and upsetting. It’s psychologically healthier to set limits, guidelines, and structure on your day up front rather than to fall behind and feel like a failure at the end of the day. This may mean saying “no” to some of your kids’, neighbors’, or friends’ requests. Sure, they may be a bit disappointed, but keeping your schedule on track will ultimately please you and others much more than gratifying their immediate and perhaps unimportant requests. You may also have to give up some responsibilities in order to keep a realistic schedule. Perhaps you shouldn’t be homeroom mom this year, or karate may have to be put on hold in exchange for the family having some dinners together during the week.

Prioritize what really matters to you. Trust me, you can’t have it all. With that in mind, put some thought into what’s really important to you as a parent. Some families value playing together, others focus upon family meetings or meals together, and still others prefer to be on the go and to catch up with each other only on weekends. Does some downtime sound enticing — paying a babysitter or a neighbor to watch the kids while you and your partner relax, take a nap together, or go out to dinner? When considering what’s really important to the family, don’t forget to include things that are important to you as an individual. If you’re not getting some of your own needs met, most likely you’ll be out of sorts, short-tempered, and less than patient with the children.

Prioritize what really matters to the kids. I’ve come to the conclusion that many of the activities that we get so stressed about are self-imposed and unnecessary. Overbooking children is usually a blend of the kids expressing some interest in taking a lesson or joining a club combined with the parent’s desire to expose the children to everything and anything. I’m as guilty as the next parent in this regard, and I must confess that by the time my daughter was 11 years old, she had engaged in 17, count them — 17, types of lessons or clubs. We trudged to the barn for horseback riding, the courts for tennis, the pool for swimming, and the gym for tumbling. Then there were those awful years taking piano and violin lessons mixed in with ballet and jazz. She was a Brownie and a Girl Scout, a member of a softball league for several years, and a basketball and soccer player. And the list goes on. But the strange part is that of all of the activities, groups, and lessons that the kid was exposed to, she really loved only one thing — and that was softball. Not only was she quite talented, but my husband was her coach and biggest fan for 7 years in a row. Now that was quality time for the two of them, and probably the only one of the many activities that made a positive, significant impact on her life. I shudder to think about the time and money that could have been better spent had she been more assertive about her priorities and I more observant about her talents and desires.

The best way to avoid this trap, I finally learned, is to communicate to your kids that they need to keep you informed as to whether they feel that they are getting anything out of the activities, or are engaging in them out of habit or a feeling of responsibility.

Sure, we all want to get our money’s worth for lessons that are prepaid, but at times it may make more sense to call it quits and take the extra time for family fun or just plain downtime. Preventing overbooking is obviously prudent, so setting a limit on the number of afternoons or evenings out per week may be a fair and democratic way of deciding how many activities will be engaged in.

Delegate chores. Despite being outstanding students, talented artists, and remarkable athletes, somehow our kids have convinced us that they are either incapable of helping out with household responsibilities or that it would take too much effort to teach them how to proceed with the task. Folks, please listen up here. They know how to sweep a floor, make a bed, do the laundry, and feed the dog. They are not dumb — in fact they are very, very smart and cagey! By appearing helpless, children are often allowed to avoid responsibilities. Turns out this trick is being played out in most of my client’s households. But not for long. Pull the plug and set up a chore chart that is age-appropriate. Be sure to keep it realistic to your children’s developmental stages, set definite time limits by which the chores must be completed, and attach significant consequences (both positive and negative) to task completions. You are not a demanding parent if you insist upon your kids helping out around the home — in fact, you’re preparing them for life as an adult, and their future spouses and bosses will thank you for the work ethic that you’re establishing early in their lives!

Stop nagging, lecturing, and yakking. You really don’t need to repeat yourself when you’ve made a request — she probably heard you the first time, and definitely by the second! If you attach a consequence that has “teeth” to it (daily allowance, use of electricity — TV, CD player, computer access), she’ll probably get it done on time. All that reminding, lecturing, and yakking just annoys and irritates the kid — let your actions speak louder and longer than your words.

Stick to a routine as much as possible. Mornings and evenings seem to be the two most stressful parts of the day. Set up strict getting-ready-for-school schedules as well as bedtime rules (in bed by 8:30 p.m., read a book, lights out by 9:00 p.m.). And there’s no point to setting up schedules if you don’t stick to them — expect the routine to be followed and your kids will be more compliant.

Don’t take it personally. All children have difficulty at times behaving in restaurants, malls, and in the car. Your child is not acting up to make you angry or to ruin your candidacy for Parent-of-the-Year. He’s whining or fussing because he wants what he wants when he wants it — pure and simple. He’s dawdling with his homework because it’s boring — not to get you mad or to prove that your attempts at teaching study skills are worthless. Child-rearing is not a sprint; it’s more of a marathon. Responsible, polite behavior can take years to develop, and there will be many embarrassments along the way. Try to keep this in mind when you’re feeling self-conscious about your child’s public behavior. Provide a consequence for inappropriate behavior and move on.

When you feel yourself about to blow, have a backup plan. Kids can really push our buttons, and we all need some quick calmdown tricks at our disposal. If your child is fussing in the timeout room, you don’t have to subject yourself to listening. As long as he’s safe, put on some music that will distract and calm you down. Or how about putting yourself in timeout? Have an older sibling watch the fussy little one and sit in the tub or take a relaxing shower. “Taking five” allows you to calm down and think about what you really want to say to your child.

Remember, you can always reprimand later, but you can’t take back inappropriate statements made in anger. Saying, “Your behavior is too much. I need some time to think about what I’m going to do. I’ll get back with you in 10 minutes,” not only gives you the time and space to think clearly, but also allows the child to wonder what fate will befall her! It’s a handy trick, one that I’ve used on many occasions with my own kids as well as suggested to my clients. Finally, consider putting exercise into your daily routine. This doesn’t have to mean 45 minutes per day with a personal trainer — a quick walk or jog around the block, doing some crunches or situps, or a workout at the gym can help you blow off steam and keep things in perspective

Remember, this too shall pass. When you find yourself at wits end, consider whether the current problem will matter tomorrow, next week, or next month. If it won’t, let it go. We can’t solve all of our kids’ problems nor provide for all of their needs. Be realistic and practical, and most of all, realize that at times just getting through the day in one piece is a success. Take the pressure off yourself. You don’t need to raise a junior Einstein or a concert pianist to feel like a successful parent. Acquire some patience with your kids’ antics and noncompliant behaviors, and you may find your family more fun and your home atmosphere more pleasant.

NEXT WEEK: How to deal with bullies at home and in school

Dr. Peters is a clinical psychologist and regular contributor to “Today.” For more information you can visit her Web site at . Copyright ©2005 by Ruth A. Peters, Ph.D. All rights reserved.

PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific psychological or medical advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand the lives and health of themselves and their children. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist or psychotherapist.