Remove this unnecessary stress by choosing a weekend to really reflect on what it is you value, and what it is you’re trying to instill in your child. Then review some of your recent parenting decisions and see whether they have truly reflected your core value set. Make note of where you’ve inadvertently contradicted yourself, and accidently created internal confusion over why your parenting seems to be failing. I guarantee you that at least some of your cortisol spikes can be contributed to this pickle you’ve created for yourself. And I promise you that if you clean up your core values, you can remove a ton of your daily stress.
With all that’s going on in our country, our economy, the world, and on social media, it feels like so many of us are under a great deal of stress. Parenting, in particular, can be stress-inducing. We know chronic stress can be as unhealthy as smoking a quarter of a pack a day. It is also challenging to be a present parent when your relationship is under stress. What are stress management strategies that parents use to become “Stress-Proof? What are some great tweaks, hacks, and tips that help reduce or even eliminate stress? In this interview series, we are talking to authors, parenting experts, business and civic leaders, and mental health experts who can share their strategies for reducing or eliminating stress. As a part of this series, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Angela Caldwell, founder of Caldwell Family Institute.
Angela Caldwell, MA, LMFT is a California Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. She serves as founder and director of the Caldwell Family Institute in Los Angeles, specializing in family-based treatment. She is currently an adjunct professor at California State University Northridge, teaching systems theory and related courses.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to know how you got from “there to here.” Inspire us with your backstory!
My parents were born and raised in the south, and my mother’s roots are Italian. I grew in El Paso, Texas about half a mile from the Mexican border, so I’ve been surrounded my entire life by a mix of heritages that deeply value the family as the core of everything. I was a child athlete who went on to play D1 tennis for college, and my experience in sports only further solidified my love of bonds between groups of people, because my teams were yet another kind of family. So I guess it was no surprise to anyone that I became a family therapist.
When I moved to Los Angeles, I found myself in a community of transplants — most young people I knew had left their families like I did to blaze their own trails. As a result, family was not valued in the way I had always known. In psychology school, I was struck by how much of our training was about healing the individual, and hardly ever about healing the family. It rubbed me the wrong way. After a few years of working as I had been trained, and focusing hard on individual suffering, I felt I had strayed too far from my roots, and sort of did a 180. I decided to stop working solely with individuals, and started insisting that real healing happens with the whole family in the room. This was a hardcore paradigm shift. I started making real progress with my clients, and got really excited about what I was doing. I’ve been on that adrenaline rush now for about 15 years, and am now trying to translate my work to larger audiences.
What lessons would you share with yourself if you had the opportunity to meet your younger self?
You don’t have enough storage on your hard drive for the answer to this one, so I’ll choose my top three. The first lesson I’d share is that most problems aren’t big enough to merit the amount of worry we endure. Life is a game of problems — they are never ending and here to stay. Each day presents a new set, and worrying does nothing to make them smaller, or make them go away. Once you’ve given yourself a quick moment for an emotional reaction, take a breath, put your head down, and get to work solving them. The more successful you are at removing emotion from your problem-solving process, the clearer your thinking will be, and the more efficient you’ll become.
Second, there is no right answer, no best way to do it, and no one way to live. There are five bazillion experts out there on five bazillion different podcasts, and they’ve all written five bazillion books and have five bazillion followers. Half of them are unqualified, most of them are overly simplistic, and none of them agree on anything. It’s rare that you’ll find someone who’s been in your exact circumstance with your exact nuances, so stop looking for the rule book, and start trusting your gut. You’ve been on this planet long enough to know enough, and you’re no smarter or dumber than the person standing next to you. Use what you know, and make choices that are as close to your values as possible. Forget everything else.
Lastly, I’d give my left arm to go back in time and tell my younger self that no one cares nearly as much as I think they do about what I’m doing, saying, wearing, thinking, or accomplishing. I regrettably spent enormous amounts of time trying to impress people I looked up to or win the approval of my peers because I was convinced that they were constantly evaluating my life and my choices. I wish I knew then that I thought about other people’s judgment of me way more than they thought about me at all.
None of us are able to experience success without support along the way. Is there a particular person for whom you are grateful because of the support they gave you to grow you from “there to here?” Can you share that story and why you are grateful for them?
This has to be my husband. (I highly recommend marrying your biggest supporter.) Before we were romantically involved, Ben was already a thought leader in our field, and his focus was (and continues to be) on the morality and ethics of clinical practice. I was drawn to him because he was one of the only ones *not* giving cheap, superficial seminars on how to build your practice, or how to hone your skills, but rather asking bigger questions about what our moral obligations are to society. He was challenging laws that contradicted our values as a field and confronting inconsistencies in our larger professional identities. He was the first person I came across after grad school who made me uncomfortable in my professional development; he was the first person who (unknowingly at the time) called me onto the carpet for some of those very inconsistencies.
As in almost every field in the world, there are habits and practices that we therapists adopt simply because that’s the way it’s always been done. At first, we are very interested in becoming another soldier in the helping army, so we tend to focus our development on doing exactly as we are taught. Later, we become so concerned with our legal liability that we stop challenging the status quo and fall in line. After a while, we dive deep into our specialties and become so narrowly focused on the work we are doing in the room that we completely forget about our larger roles and responsibilities to the world. Ben never did. His mission has always been about building professional identities based in strong value systems that are consistent with our claims.
Ben inspired me to ask myself hard questions about who I was becoming, and whether I really stood by some of the choices I made in the room. He is the reason I bucked some of the trends in my field, and he is the reason I have the courage to go against the grain, even if I’m the only one doing it that way. It’s truly because of Ben that I can now be proud of both an unwavering belief in my work and an openness to morality checks about that work.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think it might help people?
I’ve got a few ideas cooking. I’m hoping to publish my first book soon, where my aim is to simplify parenting so much that people stop overthinking it and just relax. At the risk of adding yet another voice to the cacophony of expert opinions, I want to contribute a self-help book that convinces people to stop buying self-help books and just trust their instincts and stick to their values. On a sexier note, I’m putting together some family retreats to answer all the individual and couple retreats out there. I’m hoping to provide families with a marathon weekend of unearthing old wounds and facilitating uncomfortable but necessary conversations that they’ve needed to have for years. (I’m clearly going to need a better sales pitch.) The idea is for families to come together in large groups to gain some pretty cool knowledge about family functioning that I don’t think people have, then to apply that knowledge in individual breakout groups with family coaches where they can finally get some real healing and bonding done. And last but not least, I’m continuing to build up my YouTube channel with short videos for families who can’t access me or my coaches on an ongoing basis. I’m very much hoping that these videos make it to the living rooms of families that really need to hear that fractures can be healed and relationships can be mended.
Ok, thank you for sharing your inspired life. Let’s now talk about stress. How would you define stress?
The purest definition of stress is any kind of discomfort. All negative emotions and experiences carry “stress,” regardless of how big or small they may be. The Freudians joke that the only time we are truly “stress-free” is in the womb, which is why we spend much of our lives trying to climb back in. Once out of the birth canal, forget it. All of life is stress, sometimes so enormous that it renders you incapacitated, sometimes so tiny that it’s practically imperceptible.
In the Western world, humans typically have their shelter, food, and survival needs met. So what has led to this chronic stress? Why are so many of us always stressed out?
Can I challenge the premise of the question first? I’m not sure I agree that our shelter, food, and survival needs are being met, even in this first-world nation. Homelessness where I live is at an all-time high, and millions of people are working multiple jobs just to put food on the table. Even if I agree that most of us have food to eat and a roof over our heads, we only have that as long as we’re employed. God forbid we get old, sick, or injured. This country has astonishingly few social programs in place for anyone struggling to make ends meet, and we all know it because we see it every day. So I’d argue that our chronic stress is around shelter, food, and survival needs.
That said, I’m not sure it’s anything new. We could argue that the cavemen were chronically stressed about the sabertoothed tiger, the Greeks about Zeus’s wrath, the farmers about the famine. I wonder whether what we’re seeing these days is not unusually high or chronic stress, but rather a destigmatization around talking about it. If you listen carefully to people around you, you’ll observe that older generations tend to bond and connect with each other over hobbies and successes, steering conversations away from personal woes, while younger generations tend to bond and connect by venting their stresses to one another. Take one look at social media, and you’ll see that complaints about egg prices, workplace demands, or the dismal state of the world occupy most of your screen’s real estate. Unlike the generations that came before, it’s now socially acceptable to not only admit your level of stress, but describe it in detail to your peers (who respond with pages and pages of supportive posts and tales of their own similar stresses).
But if I do accept your premise, I’d have to acknowledge a few changes in recent years, and one would be that the world has become so very visible to us all. You now have access to all the news about all the things that go wrong in all parts of the world. You are unwittingly subscribed to all kinds of newsfeeds and newsletters that show up in your socials and in your inbox repeatedly throughout the day. Parents have always been expected to know about — and know how to respond to — every threat their child encounters in the world, but now they have to know how to respond to every threat in the virtual world as well. We are now seeing so much more of the world than we used to, and that includes danger, violence, exploitation, and other wrongdoing. Neuroscientists have known for years that the more bad stuff we see, the more cortisol we release.
We’d have to include the impact of the pandemic here. Most of us were surrounded by stories of death and loss, if not actual death and loss, for more than two years. That’s a long time for your little amygdala. We’ve never been more afraid of a cough in our entire lives, and something as simple as human touch became fraught with anxiety. Coming out of this panic state is going to take a while, especially for those of us who barely survived it, physically or mentally. And for those of us who didn’t panic over the disease, the constant arguing took tremendous tolls on our regulation systems. It doesn’t take a neuroscientist to tell you that fighting isn’t good for the nerves, and Americans have been living in the national equivalent of a toxic marriage for the duration of the pandemic.
While I don’t love bemoaning our global state of affairs, because I remain convinced that each generation has witnessed their fair share of tragedy and impending doom, I will have to concede that we have a pile of tragedies and impending dooms to confront. Again, the difference might be our ability to access them. While one group is sounding the alarm that the Earth is dying, other groups plead for an end to violent atrocities against minorities. Political parties are fracturing governments, and there’s another hurricane hitting Florida. And all of this is happening while your boss is waiting for your expense report, and your child is home sick with a fever. As a mental health professional, I applaud society for making it safe to talk about all these things, but at the same time, I’m not sure all the talking is doing any favors for our stress levels. It’s no wonder that you can’t throw a rock without hitting a meditation app.
What are some of the physical manifestations of being under a lot of stress? How does the human body react to stress?
I can’t think of a system that isn’t impacted by prolonged stress. In the human body, digestive processes are disrupted, causing inflammation in the gut. Emotional systems suffer from cortisol flooding, thus interrupting the cortex’s ability to think clearly and make sound judgments. Fertility plummets, immunities take a dive, bones lose density, capillaries constrict, and blood pressure increases. Constant muscle tension causes injury and migraines, while excretory systems suffer kidney damage. In the beginning, you have a depressed and exhausted human who is starting to resent their spouse and hate their job. If it goes on long enough, this depressed and exhausted human becomes an overweight, irritable misanthrope who’s constantly sick, always angry, and probably in the middle of a divorce.
Is stress necessarily a bad thing? Can stress ever be good for us?
Our field makes an important distinction between prolonged stress and acute stress, and yes, some stress is good for you. Cortisol, the stress hormone, activates something called the HPA axis, which is basically a chain reaction from brain to gut that puts your entire body in an alert learning mode. That’s why kids who experience short spurts of moderate stress do so well in school, sports, and activities. It’s also why you have good driving reflexes and enjoy the occasional intensity of game night with your friends.
But our brains weren’t designed for prolonged exposure to high levels of cortisol. At a certain point, the learning centers of the brain shut down so that the more primitive survival processes can take over. Trauma is a great example. Kids who experience repeated trauma do poorly in school and are more likely to develop physical ailments than their peers. Adult war veterans who return from tours of duty are often unable to keep a job, or even finish an entire book. There appears to be a delicate neurological threshold of stress, and when we cross it, we pay a very dear price.
Is there a difference between being in a short-term stressful situation versus an ongoing stress? Are there long-term ramifications to living in a constant state of stress?
Short-term stress probably won’t hurt you that much. In fact, as stated previously, it’s probably good for you. Short-term stress is what allows you to respond quickly to danger signals, solve problems effectively, and meet the demands of daily life without taking too much of a toll on your body. In contrast, the long-term ramifications of constant stress are not good at all. The havoc it wreaks on your physical body is unquantifiable, and the domino effect on your job, your relationships, and your active participation in the world is undeniable.
There’s some pretty good science to demonstrate how bad it can be. A stress researcher by the name of Michael Meaney made an important discovery in the early 2000s that solidified what we had always guessed to be true about long-term stress. He had been studying the effects of stress on lab rats, and compared the brains of low-stress rats with those of high-stress rats. What he found was sobering: the brains of high-stress rats had undergone physical changes after periods of maternal separation, and those physical changes put their brains in an almost permanent state of high alert. These poor rats had been reprogrammed to experience themselves as constantly under threat. The worst part? Meaney was eventually able to see a similar pattern in human brains.
Let’s now focus more on the stress of parenting. This feels intuitive, but it is helpful to spell it out in order to address it. Can you help articulate why being a parent can be so stressful?
There is no greater stress in the world than having the survival of another human be entirely dependent on your care. If you don’t feed it, it dies. If you mishandle it, it dies. If you don’t clean it, it gets sick and dies. If you don’t remove all small objects from the immediate area, it chokes and dies. In the early years, you have to get the right car seat, the right stroller, the right pediatrician, and the right bedtime story for the right brain stimulation, or it will die.
When they get old enough to take care of some of these things on their own, now you have to worry about them being hurt by the world. Any teacher, coach, uncle, or clergy member could be a pedophile. Any stranger at any airport could be a human trafficker. Their clothes are flammable, they’re not strong enough swimmers, and they can’t fight off an attacking dog. The world is a death trap.
Then there’s high school. Now you have to think about them hurting themselves. You can’t be too demanding, but you can’t have low expectations. You can’t be too strict, but you have to have rules. You can’t talk about food. You have to ask for hugs. You can’t intervene at school, and you also have to intervene at school. One wrong move, and they might reach for the pills.
All these concerns about their basic survival float just underneath your awareness while you try to meet the expectations of modern parenting, and produce an emotionally intelligent, academically superior, and socially skilled member of society. They must have playdates. They must be at a higher reading level. No tantrums. No sugar. Anything less, and you are subject to their teacher’s concern about your household, their therapist’s condescending book recommendations, and the world’s collective judgment about what kind of childhood you must have had.
Sometimes I think I’m nuts for having kids.
Can you help spell out some of the problems that come with being a stressed parent?
A stressed-out parent makes a stressed-out kid. I’d argue that of all the tasks in all of parenting, the most difficult by far is to maintain a look of calm reassurance in the face of adversity. Kids look at us the way bad fliers look at flight attendants. When the plane hits some turbulence, bad fliers know to take their cues from the staff: If they’re not panicking, I don’t need to panic. For this reason, flight attendants have to become Zen Buddhists while on duty, even if they are shaking in their boots.
Parenting is similar. Our kids can sense an ounce of tension faster than we think, and they instinctively look to us for cues about how to respond. The more stress they see in our faces or postures, the more they’ll believe that their environments have become unsafe, and their caretakers have lost control of the steering wheel. Our primary task is to show them with just a glance that everything is fine, and that they are perfectly safe.
There are times, however, when everything is not okay, and in these moments, parents have a duty to model problem-solving and emotional regulation. Stressed-out parents have a hard time with this, understandably, because most of their internal resources are being devoted to managing their own overwhelm, so very little is left for modeling composure under pressure. On the contrary, these parents tend to experience a cortisol flood, and kids witness them reaching a fever pitch that can be frightening. These kids become preoccupied with their parent’s wellbeing, and lose the ability to focus and concentrate, which leads to academic, emotional, and social problems.
Here is the main question of our interview: Can you share with our readers your “5 stress management strategies that parents can use to remove some of the stress of parenting?” Please share a story or example for each.
There are countless strategies for managing stress, and they’re all good, and they all can be applied to parenting. Breathing, meditating, praying, exercising, medication, vacations, and compartmentalizing are all practical tools that anyone can use any time they find themselves in a state of high stress. The problem with focusing on strategies, however, is that they only get you through the moment. If you don’t start making some changes in the fundamental way you are thinking about parenting, you’re going to find yourself in a constant state of stress management, rather than enjoying the experience of being a parent, even in the midst of all its stresses.
Parenting is so much more about who you are than about what you do. You can read every parenting book in the world, and apply every tactic you come across, but if calm and composure isn’t coming out of your pores, these efforts will fall short, and you’ll find yourself back at the drawing board over and over again. We need to start diving deeper. We need to start taking a hard look at what meanings we have attached to our role as a parent, and what standards we have placed on ourselves and our families. We need to zoom the lens way out, and look for the ways in which we have designed our entire parenting approach to meet ridiculous societal expectations, impress our loved ones, or make ourselves feel better about ourselves. These are the issues that are causing so much parental stress, not a lack of strategies.
So rather than offer stress management tools, I’d rather suggest some questions that I hope will challenge the way you’re thinking about parenting stress.
- What is it that’s really stressing you out about parenting? If it’s the pressure to keep a tiny creature alive, or the pressure to protect it from the dangers of this world and itself, then I have bad news. That stress is an inherent part of parenting, and your worry is completely normal and expected. The good news is that you adapt to it after a while, especially after your tiny creature has had enough brushes with death to show you how resilient it really is. You get used to a certain level of cortisol in your system, and this is not a bad thing. In fact, I might argue that it makes you a really good parent. So, welcome to parenting. Your stress level is perfectly normal, and you may now end your process of personal reflection. There is nothing wrong with you. But if it’s something else entirely that’s stressing you out, check out some more of these questions. We may be able to get to the bottom of your anxiety and inspire you to make some changes to your entire approach.
- How have you defined “success” for yourself and your child? The more specific and detailed your answer is to this question, the more trouble you’re in. Many of us instinctively answer this one with some superficial version of “I just want him to be happy.” Yeah, sure. But what else? Happy and financially secure? Happy and married to a really nice girl? Happy and a voting Democrat? Happy and continuing to honor the religious and cultural beliefs you’ve instilled in him? Take a hard look at this one. Most of us have not only defined “success” for our child, but also subconsciously produced an entire movie in our heads from birth to death, starring our child as the most flawless human that has ever graced this earth. Take some time to watch this movie, and make a list of all the expectations you have unknowingly placed on yourself and your child. Ask yourself what happens if your child isn’t a Democrat. Or rejects your Judaism. Or can’t throw a football. Or marries a man instead of a woman. Or lives in a commune for starving artists. What if they’re still happy? Would you consider that a success? Why not? What would it be like to truly release your grip on all these other expectations, and watch in wonder as your child develops into whatever he is going to be? I’ll tell you what it would be like. You’d feel an instant reduction in your daily stress levels. You wouldn’t panic over a bad grade, or a loser boyfriend, or an identity experiment. On the contrary, your child would experience you as a rock of calm and love in their river of chaotic new experiences, and they would actually be much more likely to become the happy adult of your dreams.
- Whose approval are you seeking? Society’s? Your parents’? The pediatrician’s? Be honest with yourself on this one. Whose judgment do you fear the most when it comes to how you are parenting your child? You might be surprised at who you identify here. Whoever it is, know that they occupy a sizable portion of your mind every time you interact with your child or make a parenting decision. Know, and accept, that you have invited outside opinions into your sacred parent-child relationship, and you are now not the only one raising your child. How do you feel about that? What if you had to introduce your child to all the people in your head who are also parenting him? It’s okay to seek opinions and expertise; what we’re talking about here is fundamental parenting insecurity that you’re attempting to resolve by seeking outside approval for your decisions. Stop doing that. Make your decisions and stand by them, even if you don’t achieve the outcomes you’re after. Making parenting mistakes that are yours alone shows your child what strength of character really looks like, and teaches them to stand up for their own ideas, even if they don’t work out. And it’s a sure way to reduce your stress levels. Imagine how much added stress you’ve placed on yourself by trying to simultaneously parent your child and please others with your parenting decisions.
- What are your core values? Have you ever identified them before? If not, then you might be creating more confusion than necessary in your parenting life. You might think you value honesty, compassion, and loyalty, but your actions suggest that you actually value hard work, authenticity, and justice. Discrepancies like these send disorienting messages to your kids, and when they try to act according to one set of values, you’ll feel stressed that you’re failing them in the other set of values. Your parenting life will constantly feel like someone’s moving the goal posts, and the consequence to you will be always feeling as if you’re falling short in your parenting responsibilities.
- Remove this unnecessary stress by choosing a weekend to really reflect on what it is you value, and what it is you’re trying to instill in your child. Then review some of your recent parenting decisions and see whether they have truly reflected your core value set. Make note of where you’ve inadvertently contradicted yourself, and accidently created internal confusion over why your parenting seems to be failing. I guarantee you that at least some of your cortisol spikes can be contributed to this pickle you’ve created for yourself. And I promise you that if you clean up your core values, you can remove a ton of your daily stress.
Do you have any favorite books, podcasts, or resources that have inspired you to live with more joy in life?
This is a tricky question, because I don’t get inspired by motivational books or educational podcasts the way that others seem to. Don’t get me wrong, I have my favorite nonfiction resources, but you’re asking specifically about joy, and I find the best suggestions for living a joyful life to be in the world of fiction. I love Toni Morrison, Barbara Kingsolver, J.J. Abrams, Aaron Sorkin, and Steven Spielberg for how artfully they teach their readers and viewers about what really matters in this world. I will watch Friday Night Lights and The West Wing on repeat for their lessons on integrity and dignity. I have the entire Harry Potter series practically memorized because I am obsessed with JK Rowling’s take on maternal love. And as counterintuitive as this may sound, I am a diehard fan of anything post-apocalyptic and will devour a novel in a day or two, because this genre, more than any other, strips humans of all their material comforts and asks, “Now who are you?” That concept deeply inspires me to live as if I have no hard evidence of my true character other than how I behave in the world.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
The movement I’m most inspired by these days isn’t my own, so rather than start one, I’d try to use my influence to promote Emmanual Acho’s Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man. I’m a therapist, so I believe in the power of talking and have witnessed the magic of meaningful conversation repeatedly in my work. I am inspired by the gaps that Acho has bridged between people, and I wish that this was required viewing for all Americans. I’d want to expand his idea to facilitate uncomfortable conversations between the far left and the far right, atheists and evangelicals, anti-vaxxers and public health scientists, and then just let the magic happen.
What is the best way for our readers to continue to follow your work online?
Youtube channel: How to Family (Angela Caldwell)
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent on this. We wish you only continued success.