When you put a load on a piece of metal you stress it. That’s what the engineers call it. Stress. There’s actually a profession that deals only with understanding how much of a load any material can take. They’re called stress engineers.
And these folks know everything about what happens when you exert a lot of pressure on a lot of different materials.
I like to remember that when I feel stressed–there’s something unnatural about feeling like I’m about to break any minute, like I can’t take the pressure.
It’s my human nature crying out for some release from inhuman demands. It’s my body’s–and my spirit’s–response to an all too heavy load that I’m not made to support.
And becoming a father is stressful in many ways.
Knowing the early signs of stress and how to lessen our load, is hugely helpful to our children, not least in their early years. They’re constantly scanning their environment to know if it’s safe or not.
When we’re stressed, it tells our children there’s something to fear. Our stress quickly becomes theirs, and it affects how our children develop.
Our stress will affect our child’s behavior, which is always an appropriate response to his or her environment.
‘When things go wrong, don’t ask what’s wrong with the kid. Let’s look at the environment. Let’s look at what’s going on in the family, let’s look at what’s going on in the culture, let’s look at what’s going on in the community. And particularly, what’s going on in the child’s immediate relationships with the one that he or she is closest to. Which means to say we have to look at ourselves.’ –Gabor Maté
When you’re stressed, your child’s small body senses that there’s some unknown reason for her, too, to be on high alert. Her most trusted adult is wound up tight with apprehension.
The better you get at understanding your body’s response to overload–and how to lighten your load–the easier it will be for you to ease the pressures on your child as well.
That’s why one of the greatest gifts you can give your child is to deepen your understanding of your limits, and honor your true nature.
You can learn to recognize the signs of stress.
The word ‘stress’ goes all the way back to the 14th century, and is partly rooted in the word ‘distress’. When the life we lead is not the life we’re meant to lead, we become anxious, worried and immeasurably sad.
It is also related to the latin word for something that is tight, drawn together, compressed.
These are really hard feelings to be with, and most of us will do anything we can to get away from them. They’re just too uncomfortable, and we either numb out or lash out. Maybe you recognize some of these behaviors when you’re stressed:
- You can’t stop eating sweets or starch
- You’re not sleeping well
- You’re constantly checking your Iphone, Ipad or Facebook page
- Your back aches, your head hurts, your neck is sore
- You’re irritated, angry, frustrated a lot
- You have trouble concentrating and remembering
If some of these signs are familiar, chances are your body is responding to a perceived threat, something that drives you to flee, fight or freeze.
Your body releases a flood of stress hormones and you’re on high alert. Your heart pounds faster, your muscles tighten, your blood pressure rises and your breath quickens.
You’re all set to escape.
Being a father is full of stressfull pressures.
If we’ve never known stress before, we’ll most likely get a taste of it when we become fathers. It’s like we enter a new dimension where time is a rare commodity. Burnout consultants and stress managers (yes, those are sadly professions) know this as time stress.
The late Irish poet John O’Donoghue would agree to some extent. Stress, he said, is a “perverted relationship with time. So that rather than being a subject of your own time, you have become its target and victim, and time has become routine. So at the end of the day, you probably haven’t had a true moment for yourself”.
This is not surprising if you’re in a two-parent family where you and your partner work full time. Financially, you’re better off. But in terms of time, it’s often a struggle to balance all your professional obligations with being a present father. And there’s hardly any time to turn inwards, to visit with yourself, and hear what is calling you.
There are many other reasons most men find fatherhood to be stressful. Your family budget may be tight, especially if you’re a single-earner family. Your child’s behavior may trigger emotional memories in you that you’d rather not face (more stress!). Your relationship with your spouse may be strained from lack of attention or understanding, and there’s a silent distance growing between the two of you. Or you’re physically and mentally depleted, but taking care of yourself is not your top priority.
Your stress troubles your child.
When there’s too much stress on our systems, we’re battling invisible forces. One one level we’re just late for work. On another level our whole existence is under threat.
It’s hard to stay present with our children when we’re fighting for our lives.
This is why stressed dads don’t pick up on the subtle cues of our children. We miss a lot of what they’re communicating, either in words, sounds or signs. We’re what Dr. Gabor Maté calls proximally separated. Physically close but emotionally far away.
Despite the best of our intentions, we inevitably transfer our emotional stress to our kids. Not because we aren’t doing our best, not because the we aren’t dedicated or devoted, but because we’re stressed.
Children develop in immediate response to their surroundings; their physiologies and psyches are shaped by their social environments. For instance, children who grow up in stressful homes are more likely to have asthma.
A father who lives at a breathless pace is more likely to have a child who finds it hard to breathe.
Far from all levels of stress has this kind of impact. There are obviously gradations to how stressful the home environment is to a child. Stress specialists use the terms positive, tolerable and toxic stress.
Toxic stress is relentless and deeply damaging to our children’s health. This is caused by neglect, exposure to violence, physically or emotionally abusive relationships. It’s a recurring stress in the absence of adult support. It needs to stop, or the child will suffer for life.
Tolerable stress is manageable for our children if they receive loving attention and reassurance from a trusted adult. Maybe the child is injured, experiences the death of a loved one, or faces a calamity like a natural disaster. With the right support, this kind of stress is tolerable, if difficult. The child recovers.
Positive stress is to be expected in our children’s lives. A visit to the doctors. A conflict with a friend. Their hearts race for a while before coming back to baseline. Learning to handle positive stress is an essential part of our children’s healthy development.
– Miki Dedijer
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