"Little kids, little problems; big kids, big problems." Have you heard this phrase before?
It made my blood boil when someone with older children would suggest the problems I was having with my little kids were ... well, little.
"This is nothing! Wait until they're teenagers!" was the catch cry of the more experienced parent.
The comments were not intentionally condescending. Like so many remarks made, they were merely observations from parents who had been there and had now moved onto the next phase. Problem was, those off the cuff remarks were as helpful as a solar-powered torch.
Is it true that little kids only bring us little problems? Does that mean our stress levels are not justified when we have, say, a baby who doesn't sleep well compared to an anxious teen?
Jackie Hall, a professional counsellor, mother and founder of the Parental Stress Centre of Australia, says, "The first thing we need to understand is that it's never the events that cause stress – it's how we perceive that event and what we perceive it to mean about ourselves, our life.”
Jackie says it is more an issue of control and how we manage when things are out of our power. "When it comes to our children and how their lives unfold, parents often adopt a belief that we 'should' be able to control the outcome of their child's behaviour. We create pictures of how they 'should' behave based on our expectations and how their lives 'should' be for it to be 'right'.”
In theory, we can control more in the lives of a baby than we can in a teenager, but that doesn't mean raising babies and young children isn't intense. Their feed and sleep regimes take up our entire day; every hour is counted because we are watching for tired signs or hunger bursts and contemplating the implications if we miss a feed or sleep.
There are phases of a million different varieties that fill our heads with worry – clinginess, health issues, safety, developmental milestones, food refusal, sleep resistance, biting, crying, walking, toileting, speech …
When children reach preschool age we look at broader issues of social aptitudes and learning challenges. They are practicing playing alongside – and with – other children, which brings new trials and stresses. Embracing rules and authority is not always easy, and this often comes out in testing boundaries by talking back and demonstrating defiance through tantrums.
Primary school brings new worries: navigating friendships, highlighting learning difficulties and adjustment issues. There's managing disappointment and pressure, building resilience and fostering education. Seven years of possible stresses as they adapt to constant change.
Tweens, teens and beyond, are ages when their worlds become murkier. The problems can be anything from bullying, anxiety and depression, to social and study pressures. Add self-esteem, sexuality and body image obstacles, as well as managing the digital age of social media, and things feel like they are ramping up. Once they get a boyfriend or girlfriend, a new level of stress can leave us lying awake at night.
How can we possibly control these diverse facets through different ages?
The short answer is: we can't.
Jackie says, "Life is going to have its ups and downs. So is parenting. We need to remember that our children are going to have challenges too, just like anyone else, and that's not due to the failings of [us as] parents, but due to events that have transpired that led to your child doing what they do.”
It would be easy to say that stressing over a baby's sleep cycle in no way compares to a depressed teen who is self-harming. But to me, that is only relevant to the person living it. My daily reality and the next parents' are two entirely different experiences. How my family copes with sleeplessness, behaviour issues, health challenges or self-esteem worries will be unlike yours because of the lives we've led and the challenges we've faced.
Jackie believes the best thing we can do for our kids is accept there is not one 'right' path and to view challenging situations as learning platforms. If we can do this through the early stages of parenting, then our kids will learn "not to panic when life presents us with something unwanted, but to embrace it and use it to enhance our lives, not define it".
What is certainly true is that parental worry is not exclusive to one age group. Problems don't discriminate, they just change with age.
If that reassurance doesn't help you, then remember stressed spelled backwards is desserts. And seeing as stress burns calories, it sounds like I've got all bases covered.