Knowing Your "Stress Language" Can Help You Parent Better. Which Is Yours?

There’s no debate about it: Parenting is stressful, whether you’re dealing with toddlers making a game of stepping on Cheerios or report card struggles with your middle schooler. No doubt, these stressful moments affect the way you communicate with your child, ultimately leading you down a path of parent-child strife that no one wants to be on. But what if you were told there was a way you could sidestep these arguments for a more meaningful, positive relationship with your child? Cue “stress languages.”

Coined by Chantal Donnelly, a physical therapist, stress researcher, and author of Settled: How to Find Calm in a Stress-Inducing World, stress languages are a lot like love languages in that everyone relates to a different one (or multiple). Most importantly, knowing which one you are can help with both stress management and interpersonal relationships.

How can being aware of this information help improve the relationship you have with your children? According to Donnelly, proper communication and connection cannot happen when either party is dysregulated. “Trying to have a meaningful conversation with a child while you or your child is in a stressed state is like attempting to swim upstream — you won’t get anywhere, and it will lead to frustration and exhaustion,” she says.

But self-awareness is a powerful tool. If you notice, for example, that every time you come home after a particularly stressful day at work, you become irate over your child’s messy room, you know that the room isn’t the problem. The problem is the state of your nervous system before coming home. You’re responding to your challenging workday, not your child’s untidiness,” says Donnelly.

Below are the five different stress languages and how you can use them to better your relationship with your child.

The Exploder

According to Donnelly, exploder parents are in a perpetual state of fight-or-flight. To them, parenting feels like a battle zone that requires them to be in survival mode. Even the proverbial spilled milk will generate a reactive outburst as if their child has endangered themselves and the family,” explains Donnelly. “Exploder parents tend to overschedule and have busy work and social calendars — they’re also easily angered due to their hypervigilant state.”

Donnelly’s advice? Slow. Down. “Rushing sends a signal of danger to your nervous system, so try making transitions intentional and slow,” she says. This could mean giving yourself extra time for school pickup or even slowing down while eating.

Also, breathwork is important. If you’re an exploder parent, Donnelly says you’re probably either holding your breath or engaging in shallow breathing. “Try the breathing technique of three counts in and six slow counts out. This will slow your heart rate down and send a message of calm to the brain.”

Finally, practice purposeful underscheduling. “Both your calendar and your child’s calendar should have white spaces,” says Donnelly. “Leave room for downtime, and embrace feeling bored and unproductive (this is a sign of healing — you’re adjusting to a slower pace).”

The Fixer

Outwardly, a fixer parent can look very involved and dedicated to their child’s wellbeing, says Donnelly. “Upon closer inspection, however, a fixer parent is overly protective, ‘helicoptering’ to such a degree that they ignore their own needs, and there becomes a sense of urgency to create a perfect life for their child.”

Because life outside parenting is stressful, their need to manage their child’s health, grades, and friends intensifies. The problem? “The child ends up losing autonomy and feels incapable of helping themselves, which can lead to feelings of resentment for both the child, who feels powerless, and the parent, who ironically feels overburdened,” says Donnelly.

For the fixer, it’s essential to realize that the fear centers in the brain are having you believe that everything needs fixing. “To calm these areas, try alternating cross-body exercises like the butterfly hug: cross your arms in front of you and place your hands on your chest. Alternate tapping your right hand on your chest, then tap your left hand. Repeat for 30 seconds.”

Also, recognize that fixing from a place of worry about the future is different than teaching. “Fixing is a stress response. Teaching happens when a parent is regulated and calm,” says Donnelly. So ask yourself: Are you allowing your child to get messy, try things out, make mistakes, and build self-confidence?

The Numb-er

“To manage an overtaxed nervous system, the numb-er parent will escape responsibilities and their reality with food, alcohol, or drugs, scrolling on their phone, online shopping, or overworking,” explains Donnelly. “Consequently, they will ignore their children to get through the day. This is the parent who needs a drink not because it is pleasurable, but because they want to numb their discomfort.”

Instead of numbing, try tending to this stress by soothing yourself via movement, breathing, or other techniques that allow you to calm sensations in the body without masking them. Ultimately, feeling the sensations of the body is vital for healthy regulation, so try doing this incrementally. “For example, set a timer and allow yourself only 30 minutes of social media scrolling,” recommends Donnelly.

You can also try gentle spine articulation, an exercise that Donnelly says can be done on your hands and knees or while standing with your hands resting on a countertop: “Arch and curl your spine several times until you notice a decreased urge to reach for your numbing strategy of choice.”

The Imploder

If you’re an imploder parent, you’ve become so overwhelmed that you’ve essentially given up on trying to parent. “These parents feel trapped by whatever is going on in their life (parenting or otherwise), and there is a sense that they cannot escape their distress,” says Donnelly.

So, as a protective strategy, Donnelly says they’ll shut down by hiding in their room, escaping to the bathroom for hours, or spending a lot of time alone, all of which creates a disconnection between them and their child.

Other characteristics include being spacey and distant during the times they are with their child, or finding that they have no energy for certain tasks like responding to teacher emails or social invitations from other parents. “If their child has a tantrum or is upset, they retreat even more and blame themselves for the discord,” adds Donnelly.

One suggestion for imploder parents is to engage in activities that involve their hands, such as gardening, cooking, knitting or macrame, woodwork, painting, or drawing. “The hands are a gentle way to get moving and get you out of your head,” says Donnelly.

Or, when you start to feel yourself shut down and become antisocial, Donnelly suggests having a pre-arranged “red flag word” you can text to a trusted friend to let them know you need help.

The Denier

“Denier parents equate stress with weakness, and as such, they tend to negate their child’s emotions and feelings of stress,” says Donnelly. They frequently use the phrase “You’re OK!” if a child gets physically or emotionally hurt, and they believe the best way to protect their child is by teaching them to put on a happy face.

“This stress strategy leads to a lack of compassion and empathy and can lead to a child hiding their true self from others,” says Donnelly. Denier parents tend to do the same with themselves, often negating their own emotions and feelings.

Donnelly recommends avoiding “pep talks” of any kind if denying is your stress language. “Instead, sit with your child and let them know their feelings are valid, using phrases like ‘I am so sorry you’re hurting’ versus ‘It could be worse,'” she says, adding that listening to and validating your own feelings, sensations, and emotions will be a necessary step towards rekindling your relationship with your child.

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