Joe and Emily live in Southern California with their three young children. Both work and must commute 2 hours daily on busy freeways, often not getting home until 7:30 PM, exhausted and depleted. Stressed, they have little patience for the antics of their young children resulting in constant shouting matches, defiance on the part of the children, continual yelling back and forth, and escalating family tension.
As this case example illustrates, stress is often an underlying cause of anger in family members. Sometimes the stress is caused by events outside of the family which family members then bring into the home; other times the behavior of family members causes stress and tension in the home. In either case, it becomes a problem when parents find themselves constantly yelling at their children or disagreeing with each other on parenting strategies. In the meantime their children continue to do what they please—or continue bickering and fighting with each other. Between the adults, stress can be a major factor in marital unhappiness and ultimately divorce.
How Stress can affect individual family members
Joe and Emily both suffered individual stress symptoms including fatigue, irritability, angry outbursts, headaches and a discontent with their lives. They began feeling increasing distant from each other. Their children were also stressed-out- being tired, irritable, cranky, and demanding of attention. They often fought with each other and actively did things to get each other in trouble with their parents.
Signs of the stressed family system
Just as individuals can become overloaded and stressed-out, so can families.
To understand how this can happen, we must remember that families such as Joe and Emily’s are the basic building block of our society – and of most societies. Families consist of two or more people who share goals and values and have a long term commitment to each other. It is through the family that children are supposed to learn how to become responsible, successful, happy, and well-adjusted adults. When this no longer happens due to stress, we can say that the family unit becomes dysfunctional in that it no longer serves its purpose fully, easily or consistently.
We can recognize the dysfunctional family by noting that parents and children no longer turn to each other for support, encouragement, guidance, or even love.
Such family members may continue to live in the same house – but often don’t feel emotionally attached to each other, perhaps start living independent lives, and unfortunately don’t view their family as a warm place to retreat from the stresses and demands of the outside world.
Five Tips to Stress-Guard your family
- Tip #1 – Teach your children “resiliency” — the ability to handle stress and respond more positively to difficult events. Specific ways children can practice “bouncing back” include having a friend and being a friend, setting new goals and making plans to reach them, looking on the bright side, and believing in themselves.
- Tip #2 – Institute family rituals to provide stability. Have a way to leave each other in the morning, and to re-connect in the evening; have a Sunday morning ritual or a Friday night family pizza ritual. Rituals create a sense of security and predictability – both of which are excellent stress buffers.
- Tip #3 – Model and teach your children conflict resolution skills. Your children learn how to handle conflict partly by watching their parents. All couples have conflicts; better parents model good conflict resolution skills for their children. These skill include compromise, calm discussion, and focus on problem-solving. If there is much sibling conflict in your home, encourage your children to find a way to resolve their own conflicts rather than jumping in and punishing one or another child whom you think (maybe wrongly) is the troublemaker.
- Tip #4 – Practice stress inoculation basics. This includes proper nutrition for family members, exercise, and adequate sleep each night. The family may also want to look at time management—and how better time management might reduce both personal and family stress.
- Tip #5 – Minimize criticism and take time each day to be supportive to each other. Excessive criticism is extremely harmful to both children and marital partners, while emotional support by family members is an extremely important buffer to family stress.