A few years ago, our family went through a very rough patch. My husband was experiencing sky-high stress from work; I was dealing with some prickly boundary issues with my parents, as well as work stresses of my own; and one of my sons was having trouble falling asleep, experiencing frequent nightmares, and expressing some troubled thoughts to me.
As I type these words out now, I see how this was all probably related—our home was filled with our collective stresses, which probably made everyone all the more tense and unhappy. But at the time, I saw them all as isolated problems, especially my son’s stress and anxiety.
Eventually, my husband and I each individually entered therapy, and my husband started taking medication for his anxiety. We each began to feel better and were better able to manage our stress and anxiety. And miraculously, it seemed, our son started sleeping better, and seemed generally more even-keeled and happy.
The funny thing is, it took me over a year to make the connection between my husband and my own stress and anxiety and how they must have rubbed off on my son. At the time that my son’s anxiety was sky high, I was trying all kinds of methods to help him feel better, including a kids’ meditation app, extra one-on-one time, positive reinforcement, and lots of extra cuddles.
And while those were useful things to try—and definitely helped—the thing that needed to change the most was us, his parents.
You know that saying about how you can’t pour from an empty cup? It’s basically “Self-Care 101” and probably applies to the parenting arena more than anywhere else. When your children are young (and even when they are older) you are their whole world. You set the precedent, the mood, the energy. And they pick up on every. little. thing. They truly do: the emotions you bring into your home become their emotions too.
You can read every parenting book out there, and try every method available, but none of it will work if the person who is carrying it out (that would be you!) is coming from a place of anger, stress, or hopelessness. You can say the best words, and do the “right” things for your kids, but if you are a hot mess, your kids will pick up on that, and even the best methods will be less effective.
Now, I say none of this to blame parents who are struggling. Life is hard; parenting is hard, and really, we are all just trying our best. So much of life is out of our control, and sometimes bad shit happens to even the most well-intentioned people. Stress is going to be there sometimes, but it’s when things spiral out of control—when you no longer are able to manage your stress and anxiety—that it can become a problem.
And when those feelings of raw, unmanageable anxiety, depression, or desperation take over our lives, it can have a strong impact on our kids, whether we like it or not.
Your children may not be able to voice what they are picking up from you, but it will affect them, and you will see it exhibited in their behavior, lack of compliance, or inability to get out of their own “funks” (yes, even the youngest kids can sink into periods of anxiety and depression, and we need to be aware of that).
Of course, kids sometimes have rough patches unrelated to what is happening with you or your partner. Certainly tough things can happen in their school environments, among friends, or elsewhere. And definitely developmental changes that happen within them that can wreak havoc on their moods and behaviors at times (i.e., those glorious god-awful toddler and teens years).
But I think it’s really easy for us parents to forget that if we want happy, balanced kids who can manage their big feelings, we need to be able to do the same for ourselves. We need to model that for them: there’s really no way to avoid this fact. We need to take our mental health as seriously as we take our physical health, our financial well-being, and everything else. We need to do this for us—and for our kids.
Sometimes, we need to seek mental health services for our children too (a good child psychologist is worth their weight in gold) because parenting isn’t as simple as “change this one thing and all will magically be fixed for your kid.” Helping our kids feel well and thrive is definitely a multi-faced task. But I think we also tend to forget how much of an impact our own emotional state can have on our children.
The good news is that while children are more vulnerable than we realize, they are also more resilient too. Even if you have been through a rough few months or years with your children (again, sometimes these things are out of our control, and we need to give each other as much grace in these matters as possible), there is always a way to remedy it.
Children don’t need perfect parents. They need parents who care. Parents who will stand beside them whatever storms come their way. Parents who make an effort to make things better. Parents who apologize and take responsibility for their actions. Parents who work on themselves so that they can be better parents to their kids.
All of these things matter—they matter more than you know. So show up. Do your best. And recognize that your mental health as a parent really needs to be a priority, and that working toward more balance and emotional regulation in your own life will have a positive—and often enormous—impact on the well-being of your own children.