Do the Holidays Bring Joy or Stress?
A little stress in life can be useful. It may motivate people to stop procrastinating, take better care of their health, or explore new opportunities. However, too often the lavishness of the holidays depicted in stores and in advertisements may bring families stress rather than joy. These messages may act as reminders of the stress from lack of food and clothing for their family, lack of safe, stable housing, insufficient health care, or violence in their family or neighborhood. This stress for parents and children may grow heavier in the face of our society’s extravagant holiday glee. Eventually, the accumulation of such burdens takes a toll on parents’ and children’s mental or physical health and well-being. The continual weight can lead to toxic stress when powerful, frequent or ongoing harmful experiences trigger a person’s defenses to freeze, fight or flee. Carrying this burden of toxic stress can be so overwhelming that it disrupts a family’s nurturance, their relationships and routines.
How Can We Help Parents Lighten the Stress Load?
Supportive relationships are the most important buffer we can offer to lessen the impact of toxic stress and help parents and children cope with their difficult situations. We can connect parents with supports, such as affordable childcare and parent-child play groups that free them up to take care of themselves and help them engage in nurturing relationships with their children. We can link them to community services such as food pantries, health clinics, and job training. We can introduce them to free activities at local libraries, museums or community centers to engage in activities with family and friends. We can help them reconnect with caring family or friends, and/or connect them with a counselor or peer support group who will listen, share experiences and offer guidance.
As family service providers, the most important thing we can do is to engage families in caring relationships with us that illustrate and teach in parallel how to build nurturing relationships with their children. To build parent-child relationships, community-based programs increasingly offer parenting assessments, such as KIPS, as part of their parenting services. KIPS is a reliable and valid tool that guides an observational assessment of a parent and a child as they play together. Based on this snapshot of interactions, the family and provider can open a conversation about a parent’s specific strengths and areas for growth in their interactions with their child. This allows them to start where each family is and tailor their services, rather than teaching the same skills to every family (For example, see how a home visiting program used KIPS).
It Takes a Village. It Takes a Community.
Just as a child reaps both current and long-term benefits from a nurturing relationship with his/her parent, parents can benefit from supportive relationships with family, friends and providers in the community. We’ve often heard the African proverb: It takes a village to raise a child. Likewise, it takes a community to support parents who are experiencing toxic stress. For parents who want to lighten the load of stress, community-based programs can offer them buffers through adult relationships and links to community resources to address basic living, social, health and educational needs. In this way, communities can share the families’ burdens and lighten the load of stress. When the burdens are shared, parents may find it easier to cope with stress and then pass their experiences in coping forward to neighbors and friends to build healthier families and communities.