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Feeling Overwhelmed? Here’s The Right Way to Tell a Child That You’re Stressed

Being honest about your emotional state is a good thing. But there's a right way to let a child know how you're feeling.

Joy Velasco for Fatherly

Stress comes for us all. To-do lists pile up. So do worries. None of us are immune to it. The best we can do is recognize  when we’re stressed, understand the contributing factors, and find healthy ways that help us combat it. It’s important, too, to be able to explain to others when we are feeling overwhelmed — especially children, so that we can help learn see what honest emotional insight looks like. But there’s a proper way to do so. 

In the Before Times, we had commutes and the chance to go out with friends to help us unwind and de-stress. But now everyone is home and everything is out in the open, with few breaks and a stress that’s been unprecedented. “You can’t sustain 24/7 levels of positivity,” says Ilyse Dobrow DiMarco, a clinical psychologist in Summit, New Jersey. 

Kids are like little emotional tuning forks and can echo what we’re feeling. Even if they didn’t see and hear a parent’s stress, they know when something is off. We could all pretend that our stress isn’t there, but that’s foolish. We want to let them know, “It’s me, not you.” But there’s more to do than just that. Pandemic or not, the world is going to throw the unexpected at them, and this is someone’s chance to show them the proper way to to cope with stress.

That someone is you. Here’s how to do it correctly. 

How to Explain to a Child That You’re Stressed

If stress makes you snap, your first move is to apologize, followed with something along the lines of, “That was not a productive response,” says Laura Dudley, associate clinical professor of applied psychology at Northeastern University. 

Once you’ve owned your behavior, it’s time to put a name on your feelings. Use small words; ones your kids might understand, advises Carol Landau, clinical professor of psychiatry at The Warren Alpert Medical School at Brown University and author of Mood Prep101.

You can say, “I was a little worried, upset or grouchy” – they may not understand “stress” – but labeling helps them connect emotion and response, Dudley says. But also link your world to theirs. “You know how you can’t see your friends? I can’t either. You don’t get to go to gymnastics? I don’t get to go to the gym. It gets me frustrated.” You’re giving credence to what they’re dealing with when they hear, Oh, Dad misses things too Dobrow DiMarco says.

After you explain, you can ask if they have any questions. Expect a “no”, but Landau says to pay attention to their faces and body language. They can see a mad face and hear the loud work call or the argument you had with your partner. It can make them worry, and wonder if they’re the cause. Even if you don’t sense this, you still want to reassure them. 

The first message is the direct, “It’s not you. It’s me,” and add, “This time is tough for a lot of people, but I’m not worried about us because we’re together.” You can say the following words, but the underlying sentiment to deliver, Landau says, is, “I’ve got you back.” As for any tense words with your spouse, use the understandable, “You know how you argue with your brother? Grownups can do the same stuff. Your parents are good.”

Getting a Handle on Stress

The final piece is addressing the stress itself, and that might mean explaining what it is. Dobrow DiMarco suggests the Glitter Jar. Put glitter in the bottom of a jar, fill it halfway with water and cover. Ask, “What do you think happens when we get worried?” Shake the jar. “That’s what my mind looks like?” Then ask, “How can we cope? … We can do nothing,” as you watch the glitter settle. You’re showing that you can sit with bad feelings, not run from them, and, once you calm down, you can problem-solve.  

After all the talking, you can say, “When I’m feeling worked up, I need to do something. You want to take a walk with me?” It could be another, “no”, but while engaging them is better, you’re at least talking through your process and then executing it. “It’s critical they see you coping,” Dobrow DiMarco says.

And you have to find everyday valves so the stress doesn’t burst out. Talking with your spouse, relative or friend gives the chance to hash out problems but also kick around the innocuous. Whatever the topic, social support brings all-around good feelings. It’s been shed with the pandemic, but, “It’s what we used to do,” Landau says. 

It’s also finding 10-minute pockets in your day to do anything but work, oversee school, and worry. It could be a walk, banging out some pushups, playing the guitar, drawing. Landau says that having a project, like cleaning the garage, gives an alternative focus and a chance to get something done. But it can just as well be the pure diversion of searching the best hitting second baseman or making playlists of songs with horn sections. When it taps into something you’ve always loved, even better, but it involves putting something together, an antidote for the ongoing uncertainty, she says. 

As a parent, you’re used to doing for others, and anything else feels uncomfortably self-indulgent. But it’s not. It’s taking a little time in order to come back refreshed. Dudley puts it as this reminder: “Whatever you do for your mental health, you’re doing for others. When you have a calm mind, consider how you’ll share the benefit.”