Down To Earth Dad

Stressed Out Dads...
Rushing Around Grinds Them Down

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You, and your colleagues or staff, interact daily with plenty of young, stressed out parents as your program, school, or practice reaches out--with education and other help--to children and families. The parents look rushed (they are; in fact, they might be dashing to a second job when you see them), and if they plead poverty it's because many young parents really are nearly broke.

Your professionalism and relatively calm demeanor, though, relieves some of their anxiety as you take their child under your wing for the morning or whole day, or as you help the parents slow down and solve a problem in their relatively stressed out world.

Yes, older parents get stressed out too, but young parents are more likely to experience life hassles that cause stress, according to Scott Shieman PhD, professor of sociology and researcher at the University of Toronto. "My data show that [younger adults] experience more frequent exposure to three key stressors--feeling rushed for time, economic hardship, and interpersonal conflict in the workplace. Each of these stressors contributes to elevated levels of anger among those in their 20s and 30s," he told me recently. "Younger people have more frequent forms of some stressors in their lives."

So, why should child- and family-serving program professionals and educators pay extra attention to the relatively high stress load carried by young parents? Because Shieman's research, drawing upon national survey data of more than 1,000 Americans age 18 and older, found that feeling rushed for time is the strong-est predictor of anger, especially the 'low-grade' forms like 'feeling annoyed.' Moreover, he found that having children in the household is associated with angry feelings and behavior, such as yelling. Compared to people with fewer years of education, his research found, well-educated parents are less likely to experience anger, and when they do, they are more likely to act proactively by trying to change the negative situation by talking things through.

Since many of the parents we interact with are relatively young and tend to have lower education levels, and because of current economic hardships, we might do well to view young parents as being closer to the brink of flashpoint anger than in the recent past. "Individuals who experience more financial strain tend to report higher levels of anger. When different stressors or disadvantages combine, the emotional effects are likely to be more severe. When you combine it with these other factors, it might amplify the effects [of stress and anger]," Shieman says.

Child and family advocates seeking to have maximum positive impact might do well to beef up their outreach to stressed out young dads and moms right now. That might be as simple as helping young parents slow down, calm down, and talk to you about their stress when you greet them in the lobby. Or, it might be more complex, such as hosting a relaxing family night event where food is served (removing the need for parents to make dinner at home), or facilitating some other sort of calm time for parents and children in a fun, relaxed environment at your school or program.

Shieman says having someone to talk to is vital for many stressed out parents to reframe and try to stay positive. "Talking things over and doing things that they enjoy are good ways for low-income, young parents to try to tone down negative emotions," he explains. "Activities and relaxation are critical--if [parents] can find the time and energy for it."

Lynn Ponton, child psychiatrist at the University of California - San Francisco, concurs. She told me a primary goal for stressed out parents should be to chill out as much as possible, despite their stressors, for the sake of their children. There's hope for parents, even if their stress is spilling over into the whole family. "[Help them] find outlets for their stress: talking to adults, not their children, about their problems," Ponton says. So, let's lend young parents an ear, but let's also find ways to help reduce their stress--especially in this economy--for the benefit of the children and families we serve.

A regular contributor to Children's Voice, Patrick Mitchell publishes a monthly newsletter, The Down to Earth Dad, and facilitates the National Dads Matter!(TM) Project for child- and family-serving organizations. He provides keynote addresses and trainings, and conducts Family Storytelling Night(TM) events for programs and schools. To reserve Patrick Mitchell for speaking engagements, or to implement the National Dads Matter!(TM) Project for your families and community partners, call him toll-free at 877-282-DADS, or e-mail him at patrick@downtoearthdad.org. Website: www.DownToEarthDad.org.

To comment on this article, e-mail voice@cwla.org.

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