Employee and Family
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Stress Management: Strategies for Families
Stress has become a common word as people learn to recognize and control the pressures in their lives. Men and women work long hours to support their families, meet work demands and career goals, and to gain a sense of personal satisfaction. When parents work, there is often little time for personal and family leisure.
Even though we usually think of stress as affecting only individuals, it is possible for an entire family to be affected by stress. How can you tell if your family is under stress? Some signs are family members becoming withdrawn or irritable and relationships between them may be unpleasant or argumentative. Family stress is the tension that arises from demands or pressures (stressors) on the family to change. These demands include a move to a new home, a job change, a child starting school, as well as other reasons. These periods are marked by feelings of uncertainty, loss, and anxiety as family members learn to cope with the changes.
One reason entire families experience stress is because the lives of family members are intertwined and a problem in one person's life affects the others. For example, a person who works long hours and has many work deadlines may carry home his or her tension. Unresolved, this tension may spread to other family members, possibly creating misunderstandings and arguments.
At the same time, many couples are rethinking traditional ways men and women care for the home and children, which may be stressful itself.
Family stress also occurs when an entire family is affected by a transition, such as marriage, parenthood, a child going off to college, and middle age. For example, a new baby is a normal family stressor that often results in sleepless nights, less time together for the couple, and a new role for an older brother or sister. Everyone in this family is forced to change to adjust to the new child. Other transitions require more dramatic changes. A divorce changes the entire family's financial resources, parental roles, emotional and communication patterns.
People are often surprised when they experience stress from expected or positive events. They usually don't expect and plan for the changes all family members will have to make. Yet, like negative events, positive events create stress because they require the family to change.
In this publication, we focus on the stress families face at different stages in their development. We then turn to how families can best cope with the many changes they experience throughout their lives.
STRESS AND FAMILY DEVELOPMENT
The needs of individuals and families change over the course of the life cycle as persons grow up, establish families, rear and launch their children, experience an empty nest period, and reach the ends of their lives.
Family Life-Cycle Stages
Family life-cycle stages are often defined by the age of the oldest child, because this child usually introduces the family to a new series of developmental changes.
1.Couples -- Couples are usually concerned with developing and negotiating individual and family goals and lifestyles. These families do not have children.
2.Preschool -- In these families children have not yet entered school. The family is oriented toward the child's growth and development.
3.School Age -- The oldest child is between 6 and 12 years of age and has entered school. The family becomes more focused on socialization and education.
4.Adolescent -- The family now has a teenager, and much attention goes toward dealing with his or her, as well as the family's changes. At the same time, the family is preparing the adolescent to leave home.
5.Launching -- Young adults begin to leave home to establish identities and roles outside the family unit. Parental roles and rules change and the family is occupied with successfully launching its children.
6.Empty Nest -- Families are defined by the absence of children in the home. Parents still hold former roles as employees, volunteers, and homemakers, but the family is oriented toward the couple's needs and establishing different relationships with children and grandchildren.
7.Retirement and Aging -- Working family members have retired. Residential changes may be made necessary by illness, frailty or the death of a spouse. Parenting and grandparenting roles continue.
Many life events are expected such as the birth of a child or retirement. Other events are unexpected and sudden, such as divorce or the death of a child. These events, called stressors, have the potential to change your family.
The following common demands may cause family stress at all stages of the life cycle.
· Emotional problems,
· Sexual difficulties,
· Economic strains,
· Job changes,
· Physical losses,
Things that just don't get done.
Some stressors and strains have a noticeably greater impact on families at certain points in the family life-cycle. For instance, some research has found that financial strains are most problematic for families with young children and adolescents, and for people entering retirement.
Strains and struggles between family members are most common when children are in elementary and high school, perhaps because of new or increased demands such as children's outside activities, chores that don't get done, and difficulty communicating with adolescents. These struggles often occur at a time when parents, particularly fathers, are developing careers and are frequently away from home. This may place additional strains on working mothers who must manage many responsibilities without another adult's assistance. In fact, work-family strains are most common during the school-age years, when adults experience the pressures of job changes and promotions while trying to keep up with their children's many activities.
When Stressors Pile Up
These families may be experiencing a type of stressor some researchers call pile up. This can refer to the accumulation of unfinished tasks, such as needed auto repairs, unfinished spring cleaning and household repairs and unpaid bills. These incomplete tasks seem to hang over families and create strain and tension.
When demands pile up, it may be difficult to pinpoint the source of stress, making stress hard to resolve. This leads to more tension and frustration that may result in family arguments, but without anyone understanding why.
Pile Up Case Scenario
Doug and Cheryl found themselves arguing
on Wednesday and Thursday about things that happened days earlier.
After some thought they realized that during the week a number
of chores didn't get done because of work, school, and family
schedules. Laundry piled up, the lawn didn't get mowed, and needed
household supplies weren't purchased. During the weekend Doug,
Cheryl and their children made a frantic effort to catch up on
cleaning and other tasks. This left little time to do the things
they enjoyed together as a family, or for personal recreation.
Tension mounted, and by midweek, resulted in conflict. Some studies
have found that the pile up of strains is most common during the
years a family has an adolescent at home and then launches him
or her into a life apart from the family. These couples may also
be coping with the loss of a parent, or questioning the meaning
or importance of their jobs. Many studies have found that couples
HOW FAMILIES COPE WITH STRESS
Some families are able to recover from stress and even grow stronger, while others seem to have a great deal of trouble healing. How do families cope successfully with stress? Experts believe that a family's ability to adjust to stressful situations depends a great deal on family resources and strengths, and family outlook on the world and on their situation.
The word resources usually bring to mind money and material goods, such as a car, house, tools, clothes, and other belongings. Money and material possessions are, of course, important and may help people solve some of their problems or ease their burdens. For example, having a car for transportation when a child is sick or the money to provide nursing care for an ailing relative are valuable resources. There are other, non-economic resources that enable families to cope. These personal, family, and community resources are powerful tools in preventing or managing stress.
Physical and Psychological Health
The physical and psychological resources of each family member affect the entire family. Physically fit and healthy people find it easier to manage stress than those who are unhealthy. Research indicates that personal health practices such as weight control and exercise also contribute to a family member's ability to cope with stress.
People who are confident, optimistic, and have high self-esteem handle stress better than those who are unsure and have low self-esteem. People who feel they can take charge of difficult situations and are assertive handle many types of stress better than those who believe they are powerless to change things.
Similarly, families that feel confident and in control seem to respond effectively to stress. This does not mean they are rigid or suppress individual members' feelings or ideas. Instead, these families are flexible and adaptable to change. Family members are respected as individuals and are encouraged to develop many different intellectual and physical abilities as well as practical skills. These help them prevent or reduce their own stress before it becomes a problem for other family members, and to use their resources for problem solving in difficult or crisis times.
Some studies have found that psychological health-promoting behaviors are used most often by families in the empty nest period of the life cycle. This may be because couples without children at home have more time for shared leisure activities, have reached a comfortable level of financial stability, and are confident about their accomplishments. Families with preschoolers also seem to score high on psychological health-promotion, while childless couples score high on physical exercise. School-age and launching families spend less time on physical exercise and score lower on psychological health-promotion, although these families in particular might benefit from the stress-reducing effects of exercise, optimism, and lifestyle balance.
Families who are able to cope effectively with stress seem to have a problem-solving style based on affirming communication. These families talk things through calmly until they reach a solution. They respect other family members' feelings, taking care not to hurt each other and taking time to hear what each person has to say. These families end conflict on a positive note.
The opposite type of communication style is discouraging communication, which tends to inflame the situation. Not talking things through, yelling and screaming, fighting and bringing up old problems, and walking away from conflicts make problems worse, especially if this communication continues.
Some studies have found that the discouraging communication style may be more prevalent during the school age and adolescent years of the life cycle, and may increase during crises. This may be a result of the many pressures and changes during these periods and difficulty making time for family communication. Affirming communication seems to be prevalent among preschool families. Throughout the life cycle, there are opportunities to learn and practice affirming communication, which is a vital family resource for coping with stress and maintaining family strength.
This is not to say that families with good communication skills don't have conflict, they do. But they practice effective ways of handling conflict.
Basic Steps to Effective Conflict Management
· Be calm. This makes it easier to discuss a problem.
· Define your feelings, needs, and what you would like to change.
· Communicate your needs by saying how you feel and what your needs are. Avoid blame.
· Listen carefully and attentively to the other person's point of view, respect their feelings. Be open-minded -- don't argue mentally.
· Brainstorm. When you are ready to look at alternatives, come up with as many solutions as possible.
· Evaluate alternatives. Go over suggestions. Come up with a plan everyone involved can accept.
· Try out a plan. Practice the solution. Keep up your end of the agreement. Be positive and optimistic.
· Reevaluate. After a week or two, assess how the plan worked. Make any needed adjustments. Try out the new plan.
Social and Spiritual Support
Another resource that influences how families respond to stress is the social support they receive from friends, neighbors, and relatives. One of the most important types of social support is psychological support, which provides a person with feelings of being cared about, valued and admired as an individual, and of belonging to a network of people who are committed to one another. Members of a support network help solve problems before they become difficult to handle, and provide emotional support to deal with events that create stress.
In difficult times, being cared about may actually protect us from the negative impact of stress on physical health. Families experiencing stress associated with life-cycle changes might especially benefit from the positive effects of social support. While families at the preschool and empty nest stages of the life cycle report high levels of social support, families in the school age and launching years report lower levels of support, even though these years are stressful in many ways.
In addition to friends, neighbors, and family, there are community resources that provide support. These include religious organizations, volunteer groups, parent groups and classes, and social services. These groups provide informational support, knowledge and skills that help people manage their lives, and practical support with food, shelter, and financial aid. They may provide referral support to physicians, counselors and community agencies. Spiritual support is an important resource for many families. Religious beliefs help a person maintain individual self-esteem and guide these families through stressful situations.
Another factor that determines the degree of stress is family outlook. While one family sees a situation as a problem, another family may see the same situation as a challenge. There are no right or wrong ways of looking at events, but the way you look at a situation influences how you react and handle stress. In fact, your outlook may be more important than the events themselves in determining how able you are to handle stress effectively and how much stress you experience. The following example illustrates the importance of how families define a stressor event.
Defining a Stressful Event
Tom learns that he is going to be laid off from his job. Tom and his family may define the situation as an opportunity for him to go back to school and retrain for a new job in computer science. Tom has always been intrigued by computers but never had time to pursue his interest. His family realizes that the long-term employment prospects are far better for Tom in computer science than in his old field. If this is the case, the present hardships associated with being laid off will have a considerably different effect on Tom and his family than if the family blames him personally for losing his job and holds him responsible for the resulting hardships.
One of the most important ways families can adjust positively to stress is to take a long-term view of stressful events and problems. Believing that in the long run problems will work out seems to help families endure daily hassles and major events. Long-term family rewards are seen as outweighing the short-term problems.
Another effective way of adjusting is to reframe the situation. Reframing redefines the meaning of a stressful event in a way that makes it more rational and manageable. Reframing is seeing the good in the bad, or optimistically creating challenges from obstacles. Another approach is to sit back and wait out a crisis or a problem. This usually is used when family members see themselves as only able to tolerate but not to master a difficult situation. Although this strategy is frequently used at later stages of the life-cycle, it is not as effective at reducing or managing stress as reframing or seeking support.
MANAGING THE EFFECTS OF STRESS
In most situations, learning to cope with daily stressors and pile-up or demands will help families adjust. The experience of responding successfully to demands may even help some families grow closer. In some cases, however, it may be better for families to make a radical change rather than to adjust. It may be better for a woman who is abused by her husband to leave home with her children and enter a spouse abuse shelter than to learn to tolerate the abuse. It may be best for a family with a failing business to sell the business rather than to sink further into debt. Even though these changes would be disruptive at first, a complete change may be better in the long run.
There are ways you and your family can increase your abilities to prevent and respond to stress. Following are some of the most effective ways to build resistance to stress and to develop effective coping skills.
· Prevent and recognize your own stress before it has a negative impact on you or your family. Your personal experience of stress affects family stress. Healthy lifestyle behaviors have a major impact on your ability to withstand stress. These include getting regular exercise; eating nutritious foods; limiting your drinking of alcoholic beverages, if you do drink; taking precautions in use of prescription and over-the-counter drugs; practicing stress reduction techniques; and taking safety precautions.
· Practice new skills and stay flexible. One way you can increase your ability to cope with stress is to take stock of your organizational skills and abilities and make a conscious effort to learn new skills. Other ways to increase family flexibility are planning new experiences, rotating esponsibilities for chores, and inviting new people to dinner. These new experiences will increase your ability to adapt whenever stressors require changes in your family.
· Recognize life events and transitions that may have caused stress. What events or transitions have you experienced in the last year? What are the daily strains your family experiences? Are strains and tasks piling up? What symptoms of stress have you noticed? Remember, although your answers to these questions may provide useful clues in identifying possible sources of stress, your family's or individual reaction to events depends to a great extent on your resources.
· Support other family members and find sources of support for yourself. Think about the people you confide in most and depend on first for emotional support. Think about the people who are not as close but still might be helpful to you. Do you feel satisfied with your support network? Do you feel you have people you can count on for help? Do you need or want to strengthen some friendships? If you want to strengthen your support network extend your friendship and support. Call a lonely neighbor or have coffee with a friend. Accept others' offers of help.
· Develop family communication skills that will improve your understanding of each other and your ability to work together to solve problems.
· Practice looking at difficulties and problems in a positive light. Turn the tables on stress and find positive, effective ways to cope with challenges.
For more information about preventing and
coping with stress through health and stress reduction,
Glick, P.C. (1989). The family life cycle and social change. Family Relations, 38, 123-129.
Grimes, S., Cockrel, J., and Quick, S. (1989). Dealing Creatively with Conflict. Lexington, KY: College of Agriculture, Cooperative Extension Service (H.E. 1-320).
Hansen, G. (1987). Understanding Family Stress. Lexington, KY: College of Agriculture, Cooperative Extension Service (H.E. 7-131).
Hansen, G. (1987). Coping with Family Stress. Lexington, KY: College of Agriculture, Cooperative Extension Service (H.E. 7-132).
Hughes, R. (1986). Parenting on Your Own. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, College of Agriculture, Cooperative Extension Service (Circular 1248).
McCubbin, H.I., and Thompson, A.I. (1989). Balancing Work and Family Life on Wall Street. Edina, MN: Burgess International Group.
Olson, D.H., and McCubbin, H.I. (1983). Families: What Makes Them Work? Beverly Hills: Sage Publications.
Smith, C. (1986). Friends Indeed: A Course in Helping. Manhattan, KS: Cooperative Extension Service (MF-806).
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CMR Canada - Employee and Family Assistance Programs
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