Make Family Stress Work for You

Dave, a social worker, has been fending off the flu bug one day at a time for a week. This evening he stays at the office late in a desperate attempt to get something done after a day of seemingly endless interruptions. A coworker, seeing his light still on, seizes the opportunity to deliver a broadside attack on Dave for calculatingly taking over and not including others on the staff in decision making and planning for the future.

Arrival at home brings more demands. Wife Carol, herself employed full-time as a clothing store manager, discovers that someone will have to go to the grocery for essentials before supper can even be prepared. The couple's two teenage sons are starving and in a rush to get on with the evening's activities. Brian announces he needs to be dropped off at school for basketball practice in 30 minutes, while Kevin must go to the library to finish off a major report for history class. He expects Dad to locate some helpful reference material from his personal library. He also plans on Mom typing the paper later. But Carol has to prepare refreshments for the PTA meeting and go by the mall to pick up a dress that she left for alterations.

Obviously, for the Smith family it's been “one of those days.” Every family has days like this. But for too many families days like this have piled up back-to-back, and the stress of it all begins to take its toll.

Stress Isn't Bad in Itself

Without stress, we would be motivated to do little or nothing. Life would just pass us by. The issue is one of control. When we feel in control of our stresses, the effect is healthy and productive. But allowing stress to accumulate, to build to the point where it controls us, is painful and unhealthy. For years now, myriads of books and articles have focused our attention on unhealthy individual stress - its causes, its effects, and its remedies, both self-help and clinical. More recently, however, a sense of corporate stress has begun to be recognized in the family. In her excellent book Stress and the Healthy Family, Dolores Curran defines family stress as “a condition that arises when family life gets out of control.”

Dave and Carol know what she means. Days merge into weeks, with no letup in the pace. The family seems caught up in a pervasive sense of urgency, with no opportunities to relax. Tensions mount; emotions build. Misunderstandings give way to sharp words and explosive outbursts. Everyone wishes he could escape, but the treadmill only spins faster, hopelessly entrapping them all. And in the moments when the treadmill slows sufficiently for one to think about more than where he must hurry next, the flood of thoughts is too painful to be restful and restorative.

Life passes too quickly. The children grow up too fast. There's not enough time for fun, for making memories. The years are running out for doing all they had dreamed of in their youth. If this is life, what a disappointment it has turned out to be! And so Dave and Carol fantasize about simpler times while simultaneously struggling with enormous guilt for what they can't accomplish - for the family, the neighbors, the church, the school, the community, and the downtrodden of the world.

But the situation is far from being as hopeless as it may appear. Families can learn to live so that when they are faced with a stressful situation they will have adequate resources to cope, even grow from it as a result. If you have often felt like the Smiths, here are some tips to help you turn stress into a friend instead of an enemy.

Accept stress as Inevitable

Families who are stress-effective accept stress as an inevitable fact of life. One 80-year-old veteran of this century's wars, depressions, calamities, and inescapable changes expresses this way: “What is all this talk of stress these days? Stress is life, that's all. It's God's way of showing us we're alive and kicking. We've just got to kick a little harder sometimes, right?”

When stresses intensify, remind yourself that family problems don't mean you have failed. They are a normal part of life. Some you can anticipate, like tax worries or frustrations over a moody adolescent. Others catch you by surprise, like an extended illness or a job layoff. Certain stresses you can do something about; others you have to accept and live with.

Stress-effective families spend their energy seeking solutions to difficulties rather than feeling guilty or passing blame. Times of stress can then become stepping-stones to identifying family strengths, to growing in the coping skills that prepare the family for future challenges, and to gaining an emerging sense of family esteem. “We can do it together! We know we can, because we have before!”

Take care of yourself

This need is usually dismissed with a dozen good reasons why there just isn't time and why all this emphasis on self isn't good for humankind anyway. While it's true that no one is more deprived than a person living only to please himself, in another sense we must think of ourselves to a certain extent. The ability to give to others arises from our own physical, emotional, and intellectual fullness, not from an empty reservoir within us, depleted by an endless round of job work, housework, yard work, schoolwork, volunteer work, church work, and whatever other worthwhile activities we find to do.

At lunchtime I walk two miles with a friend from the office. It all started as a desperate attempt to slow the middle-age spread, but it has turned out to be much more than that. In fact, my husband says no money in the world could buy more effective therapy, so he'll gladly slip home to put out the dog if I'll just please go take my walk! Some days my friend talks and I listen; some days it's my turn to talk. Some days we laugh; some days we cry; some days we chatter; some days we share each other's lives and offer our support in silence. We always feel better.

As families become more and more stressed, a healthy diet, adequate exercise, plenty of rest, fresh air, and sunshine are more essential than ever for good health. Playtime - for couples, for parents, for spouses as individuals, for children - has never been more important. Also worthwhile, even essential, is the encouragement provided by a special friendship or by support groups for couples, parents of teens, single parents, etc. To be healthy, families must begin to plan for these revitalizing activities. Times alone, times together-pursuing hobbies, playing games, enjoying the outdoors, changing routines, meditating, making memories. Without them we cannot cope for long.

Take charge of time

But all these things you've mentioned take time, you say, and time is what we don't have! If we had time, we wouldn't be so stressed. True, time lies at the root of nearly half the challenges listed by families as accounting for the high stress level they experience. But some families determine to make time for what's important, to be in charge of time instead of allowing it to control them. Here's how they do it. First, they keep calendars, individual calendars for everyone in the family down to the youngest child. One family we know gathers weekly to look at their calendars, making needed adjustments together before problems occur. Through long-range planning they make every effort to keep schedules sane and to control the encroachment of work on family time.

Second, they prioritize. They make daily lists of the four or five most crucial things to be done on a given day, then rank them from highest to lowest and complete them in that order. These families have learned to get encouragement mileage out of what they accomplish rather than chastising themselves for not always completing the list.

Last, they manage involvement outside the home so as to nurture a spirit of service in each family member, while at the same time protecting the family's vital energies. All this takes work, but it pays high dividends.

Lower your standards

For some of us this strategy is very hard! Let me tell you a little about my personal fantasy. You know, how I'd really like things to be. The setting is always a spanking-dean Cape Cod with white curtains and exquisite wallpaper. Mom is home all day, able to catch a quick nap after lunch so as to be fresh when the kids get home from school. Over milk and cookies baked from scratch, of course - Mom and the kids talk about their day. A delicious four-food group dinner is ready when Dad comes in, weary from office pressures. After dinner there's the fireplace, cross-stitching, popcorn, Dad catnapping in the recliner, and children contentedly playing scrabble on the floor. You get the picture.

Like I said, lowering standards can be hard to do. Brought up on the crisp sheets, fresh towels, and ironed dresses and shirts that at home mothers could more easily provide in the past, we find accepting a lower standard for ourselves extremely difficult, if not deflating. But in my childhood home there hung the cross-stitched reminder “There will be years for cleaning and cooking, but children grow up when we're not looking.” It was a gentle reminder, but it made its daily impression on both my mother and her children. When your tennis shoes stick to the kitchen floor and laundry threatens to engulf the basement, remember that these things are quickly forgotten. The two questions that persist in the memory are How much am I loved? and Who has time just for me?

Lowered standards encompass more than relaxed housekeeping, however. Stress-effective families learn quickly that more can be experienced and enjoyed over a lifetime if perfection is not required in every sphere. True, some things that are worth doing are worth doing well. But other things are worth dabbling in with no degree of perfection ever achieved just for the sheer joy of the experience.

Our friend Roy grew up in a home where scholastics definitely took priority over sports. Like his father and grandfather before him, Roy is as awkward with a baseball bat as a teenager whose arm suddenly reaches the milk pitcher two inches before it was supposed to. But last summer Roy played with the town softball team while his sons watched and cheered from the bleachers.

Lucky is the child with an adult model willing to risk failure for the pleasure of trying something new, who reaches into new experiences purely for the understanding and breadth they bring into his life. Fortunate is the family whose members recognize each one's strengths and encourage each other's ventures into life without the heavy cloud of perfectionistic expectations threatening to burst overhead and dampen the creativity and enthusiasm placed within every heart by the Creator.

Lowered standards may also mean refusing to bring work home, turning down a promotion requiring a move, trading a raise for more job-hour flexibility, or saying no to an employer when work threatens to interfere with family time.

One busy corporate board chairman opens his calendar to his family six months in advance, and they make “appointments” with Dad. These appointments are taken very seriously. Even when an emergency board meeting was called at the request of the company president, Carl explained calmly that he would not be available until after 3:00 because he had an appointment that couldn't be changed. Imagine his surprise when he bumped into some board colleagues at the beach where he was building sandcastles with his son.

“I thought you had an important appointment,” one of the executives chided.

“I did,” Carl shot back, “with my boy.”

Many retirees, when asked what they would have done differently, admit they would have spent more time at home than at work, because family relationships and memories last longer than job satisfaction. Many smart young couples listen to this message and take it to heart in time to make a difference.

Share responsibilities

For some families the sharing of household responsibilities - from keeping up the lawn to doing the grocery shopping to cleaning the bathroom - is a way of life. In such families this is an issue usually resolved first between the parents and then modeled for the children. Its resolution does not arise out of a love of household tasks on anybody's part, but rather out of a high degree of respect for each other and a desire to do one's fair share so that everybody can enjoy free time.

But how does a family move in this direction initially? If you have a dramatic bent, a kit is available for mothers who wish to go on strike, including bumper stickers and strike placards as well as tips on timing, listing grievances, negotiation, and settlement. For the less dramatic, begin by gently but firmly communicating your feelings. Then work out a method for assigning household tasks. For years our family wrote down each task on a piece of paper and drew them from a hat every Sunday morning. Be sure to consider the time constraints and abilities of each family member. Clearly spell out expectations and agree upon consequences should duties not be performed according to plan.

Place your emphasis on relationships

Central to the emotional health of every human being are good relationships with others. Ours is an age that has elevated things over persons, performance over acceptance, self-actualization over relationships. Daily we are bombarded by media messages proclaiming that happiness sterns from a wide range of products. Too many marriage manuals focus on manipulation as a way of getting needs met. Too much parenting advice centers on the use of discipline schemes to correct unacceptable behavior. But what most of us need is encouragement and help in building positive family relationships, for without them the best techniques available will be ineffective.

Over the long haul, only relationships - with God and with each other - provide lasting satisfaction in life. That brings us to another point. The wise family cultivates a strong relationship with God, collectively and individually. By example, parents teach children that ultimate relief from stress comes through trust in God and the guidance He gives in answer to prayer.

Communication is at the heart of any relationship-building. Family communication is at its best when it is synonymous with togetherness. Families are more likely to communicate when they are together - working, playing, worshiping. Good communication is always a loop: a give-and-take of listening and sharing, an openness to hearing and understanding how another feels, as well as a willingness to risk sharing one's inner self. Both are gestures of love and acceptance.

There will be moments of laughter, moments of pain. Times to apologize, times to forgive. Times of oneness, times when the pain of estrangement only slowly gives way to the healing of reconciliation. There will be opportunities for teaching about right and wrong, for making cherished family values as winsome as you know how, and for accepting the doubts and questions of adolescence and mid-life. There will be times for holding firm to limits and times for flexibility and independence. Times when our lives match our dreams and times when we are frustrated to despair.

But this is life, God's way of telling us we are alive and kicking. If we are wise, we can kick harder and smarter toward a family life that, even in the midst of stress, brings the richest of rewards.

Family | Relationships

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