K-State Research and Extension News
April 26, 2010
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Family Members Handle Stress Differently

MANHATTAN, Kan. -- Stress is part of life, but should not always be perceived as a negative, according to a team of Kansas State University Extension specialists.

"Stress generated by an approaching deadline or the need to get the grass mowed before it rains can be a motivating factor," said Elaine Johannes, a K-State Research and Extension youth development specialist.

What Johannes calls "distress," which may be generated by an accident, job loss, illness, change or event can, however, disrupt physical and emotional well-being.

Either can -- and usually will -- affect family life, said Johannes, who in sharing the discussion about stress in families and how to manage it with Charlotte Shoup Olsen, family systems specialist (also for K-State Research and Extension), shares the viewpoint that age and stage in life become important considerations in managing stress successfully.

If, for example, a partner, spouse or parent loses his or her job, the loss will extend beyond the paycheck, and cause stress -- and distress -- in the family, Olsen said.

As the news settles in, the pressure to replace the paycheck can be a motivating factor in the search for a new job, she said.

And, the distress due to the loss of wages (and financial security the lost wages provided) can generate physical and emotional responses that affect everyone in the family, said Olsen, who noted that a couple's communication skills will be key factors in managing such situations, while also growing through the process.

"When faced with a stressful situation, it's best not to assume that you know how others are feeling," she said.

"Be respectful, and step up to share the responsibility, rather than trying to place blame," said Olsen, who encourages couples to work together.

"Let go of anger," said Olsen, who explained that anger can intensify the stress and damage relationships.

Make time to talk about the stressor, but, if tempers flare, take 20 minutes or more for a time out to calm down before resuming the conversation or making a date for discussion, she said.

In talking with each other, listen intently to what the other person has to say, without interrupting or rushing to judgment, Olsen said. Choose body language -- a nod, smile or continuing eye contact are examples -- to let your spouse or partner know that he or she has your full attention.

In talking with each other and modeling stress management for the family, Olsen encouraged parents to consider how much of the stress-producing issue they should share with their children.

A job loss, illness or relocation brings change and the need to accept -- or acknowledge -- change, said Olsen, who advises parents to "go with the flow in developing a plan and lead by example."

"Be honest and sincere; try not to magnify an issue, but don't discount it or try to cover it up, either," the family systems specialist said.  

And, while younger children may be shielded from some stress, teenagers who pick up on distress in the family should not be expected to handle it as their parents or other adults do, Johannes said.

"A teenager is typically trying to find out who he or she is," she said. "They're becoming aware of the challenges of life, but usually will prefer to watch as parents and older siblings manage stress."  

Saying that isn't the same as saying older children should avoid all stress, the youth development specialist said.

A teen's observations of how family members cope with stress can be a helpful learning process, said Johannes, who reminded parents that gender is a factor in communicating with teenagers.

Teenage boys are known to keep their feelings to themselves, said Johannes, who warned parents that a teenage boy often will be more likely to share what's going on in his life while occupied with an activity such as playing basketball, rather than when asked a direct question.

"Windshield time works, too," said Johannes, who explained that riding in a car together can sometimes generate conversation with teens, including opportunities for them to let parents know what's going on.

In contrast, teenage girls often are better able to express their feelings and concerns.

Either way, Johannes advised parents who are confronting family distress to stick to the facts, but try not to overload children with too much information, and to listen to a teen, but try not to pry.

"Parenting a teenager and leading him, her -- or them -- through stress and inevitable life changes is similar to the role of a coach," she said. "The team is in the home (rather than on the field), and the goal is nurturing family relationships."

Johannes and Olsen are based in the Department of Family Studies and Human Services at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan. Olsen also is the creator of "CoupleTalk," a K-State Research and Extension skill-building communications program for couples and families.

More information about managing stress, building successful relationships and improving communication in family and personal relationships is available at K-State Research and Extension offices and online at: www.ksre.ksu.edu.  To listen to the interview pertaining to this news release, go to: www.ksre.ksu.edu/News. Choose K-State Radio Network, then Sound Living (among the list of programs available) and scroll down to "Managing Family Stress."


K-State Research and Extension is a short name for the Kansas State University Agricultural Experiment Station and Cooperative Extension Service, a program designed to generate and distribute useful knowledge for the well-being of Kansans. Supported by county, state, federal and private funds, the program has county Extension offices, experiment fields, area Extension offices and regional research centers statewide. Its headquarters is on the K-State campus, Manhattan.

Story by: Nancy Peterson
K-State Research & Extension News

Elaine Johannes is at ejohanne@ksu.edu; Charlotte Shoup Olsen is at colsen@ksu.edu. Both are officed at 785-532-5773