Clinically reviewed by Dr. Chris Mosunic, PhD, RD, CDCES, MBA

How to be present with a child when you're in peak stress mode

By Kells McPhillips

Life is stressful enough when you’re flying solo. Add a kid (or multiple!) to the equation, and you may face challenges you never have before. Having a small child vying for your attention in times of extreme stress may make you feel like a “bad parent,” but according to psychologists, these moments of parenting stress can actually be a valuable time to teach your little ones through example. 

“Parents often put enormous pressure on themselves to be perfect for their kids or feel that they need to be present for them all the time. Becoming a parent adds entirely new levels of stress to the already existing challenges that come with being an adult,” says psychotherapist Mary Borys, LCSW. While it’s a bit of a cliché at this point, the old “remember to put on your own oxygen mask first”-saying can be really helpful to keep in mind when your emotions are heightened around your kids. “By managing your stress levels and tending to yourself, you are putting the kids first by preventing burnout or more pervasive issues that could get in the way of authentically showing up for your family,” adds Borys.

Of course, it can be hard to remember that you’re juggling both your emotions and your child's emotions at once. So below, Borys and psychotherapist Kasey Epstein, LSCW, share their best tips for navigating personal and parental stressors. 

Stress management for parents: How to prepare for future stressful moments

An essential mindfulness teaching is that meditating in the easy times will prepare your mind for the more difficult times to come. Parenting is similar. According to Borys, reflecting on your stress signals—or symptoms that tell you that your emotions are running high—can help you stay present and calm (or, okay, calmer) under challenging circumstances. 

“Know your body and the signals that it gives to indicate when stress is starting to build or become overwhelming,” says Borys. Some common stress responses include fatigue, muscle tension, or social withdrawal. “As soon as you are aware of these signals, aim to scale it within yourself. Is this [feeling] a ten out of ten or a four?” says Borys. 

Your answer will inform what stress-reduction practices you choose. For example, maybe if you’re at a 3 out of 10, you just need to go outside for fresh air. Meanwhile, if you’re at an 8, you may need to figure out a way to take a few hours to read, journal, and nap. These practices will be personal to you, so if you have a moment right now, go ahead and jot down some coping tools that help bring you back down to Earth. 

According to Borys, knowing yourself deeply will help you build a “care toolkit” of sorts. That way, when the world throws something challenging at you and your child is pulling on your sleeve, you’ll know how to measure your internal temperature—and what to do about it. 

Bonus: These behaviors will also model stress reduction techniques to your child.

Your 3-step plan for dealing with parental stressors 

When the actual meltdown arrives (and remember, we’re talking about adult meltdowns here), Epstein has a three-step plan for managing your feelings while parenting. Ready? 

Step 1: Label what you’re feeling 

Here it comes: The Stressful Moment. Whether it’s an unusually high power bill or a looming work deadline, Epstein says that the first thing to do is label exactly what you’re feeling. This technique involves looking inward and quickly slapping a label—like “uncertainty” or “fear”—on whatever’s going on with you. Research shows that this technique effectively pauses the influx of emotions and clears your mind, which is exactly what you need. 

Step 2: Talk through a solution with your child

Once you’ve stuck a name tag on your feelings, you’re ready to de-escalate the situation. “Label how you are feeling and what you need to do to feel better, then follow through and show [your child or children] how it helps to calm you down.  For example, ‘I am feeling frustrated because this living room is a big mess. I am going to take some deep breaths and get a drink of water. Then I will come help you clean up the living room. I had some cold water, and now I am feeling calmer and can help you clean,’” Epstein says. 

This process of walking your kids through your big feelings can translate to other situations, says Epstein. She offers the scenario of a child not wanting to leave the park. You might say something like, "I see you're really upset about having to leave the park. Let's get a drink of water and see how we feel after that. Drinking water helps me to feel better when I feel sad too,” explains Epstein.

Step 3: Review and learn

When all is said and done, it’s important not just to sweep your stress under the rug. Think about how the conversation with your child panned out. If it went well, take a moment to feel proud of yourself; if it didn’t, don’t be hard on yourself. Just review what could go better next time. “It’s important to give yourself grace throughout this process. There are no perfect parents, and meeting your stress with agitation will only create further agitation,” says Borys. “Ask yourself, how can you give yourself compassion?” 

Afterward, you can also take some time to think about what patterns seem to be occurring in your stressful moments. Can you do something to break them? Perhaps waking up to a messy living room is an ongoing trigger for you, so you need to clean it each night before you turn off the light. 

“Additionally, consider scheduling time in your day to take care of specific tasks or even to focus specifically on your stressors. During that time, which can be as simple as 3 minutes or 30, you can journal, get organized, breathe—whatever matches your needs. Focus on what you can do rather than all of the things that feel out of control,” says Borys. There’s no perfection, but with practice, you can stay a tiny bit more present with your child in turbulent times. 

Calm Health is a mental health wellness product. Calm Health is not intended to diagnose or treat depression, anxiety, or any other disease or condition. Calm Health is not a substitute for care by a physician or other health care provider. Any questions that you may have regarding the diagnosis, care, or treatment of a medical condition should be directed to your physician or health care provider.

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