Home Is Where the Heat Is

Home Is Where the Heat Is

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Say Goodbye to Stress


Home Is Where the Heat Is



Your home is your sanctuary. It’s your castle, your personal safe haven. And the beautiful family that resides with you? They’re the most treasured people in your life. Yet even the happiest of homes can still be the epicenter of stress.

While home and loved ones are usually a source of joy, they can also be a big source of tension and stress. Kids, partners, siblings and parents place demands on you. Conflicts arise. Things break. Bills and laundry pile up. Sometimes it’s enough to make your head explode! And that’s even before you toss a doozie like divorce, a new baby or surly teenagers into the mix.

Just how much is home life stressing out the average American? The American Psychological Association’s most recent Stress in America survey found that more than half of all Americans lie awake at night worrying about family-related issues and over 70 percent of parents cite family responsibilities as a significant source of stress. Divorce ranks just below death of a loved one on most stress scales. With about 50 percent of Americans admitting they have anxiety about paying the rent or mortgage, even the literal roof over our heads is giving us agita.

For sure, home life strife is complicated by a tangle of emotions — everything from love to sadness to pride to anger to exhaustion. That doesn’t mean you can’t get a handle on it though. Learning to cope strengthens familial bonds and prepares you to deal with the larger crises that inevitably crop up. As the stories in this chapter demonstrate so nicely, once you strike the right balance, peace and harmony can prevail within the four walls of your home, so that both you and your family are happier and healthier. I’ve got some sensible advice for you on how to do just that.


A Lifetime Commitment

It sounds like it should be the most natural thing in the world: Have a conversation with a family member that involves reasonable dialog and mutual understanding. If only it were always that simple.

No one gets under your skin quite like someone who is related to you by DNA or marriage. Maybe it’s because we feel so comfortable in our relationships or they are so enmeshed that deep down we don’t think a little shouting (or the silent treatment) can cause any long-term harm.

Think again. What you say and how you say it to a family member matters a lot because they’re the people with whom you have the most at stake. This is doubly true when there are children in the mix. Your overall communication style impacts them on multiple levels — something to keep in mind at all times but especially when adults in the household aren’t getting along. Studies show that kids whose parents engage in a war of finger pointing and blame often have lower math and social skills than children from stable homes.

Whether you’re going through a nasty divorce, you’re at war with another family member, or acrimony is merely par for the course in your household, you owe it to your children to dial it down. It’s your lifetime responsibility to ensure the effects of negative energy don’t spill over onto your child. That means coparenting with mutual respect, setting up civil rules of engagement everyone can live with and resisting the temptation to use your offspring as spies or go betweens. Do it for the sake of your children but don’t be surprised if it helps make things better for you too.


Assess the Situation

Let me share something I tell my patients that’s often difficult for them to hear: One of the best ways to improve family dynamics is by taking a long hard look at yourself. You may be so sure that everyone else is wrong or that they need to be taught a lesson, you don’t realize that you yourself are causing problems. Are you fanning the flames, taking the bait or falling into any of the other common traps of poor relationship management? The strong emotions created by weak communication can take on a life of their own. You can become so preoccupied with being right or winning an argument, that you don’t realize it’s more productive to let go of something that is ultimately insignificant.

I know that taking a personal inventory can be particularly challenging. It’s tough to admit that you are the one who needs to change your ways. Trust me, it’s always worth it. Far from giving in, it’s a way of stepping back and allowing yourself to gain control of your thoughts, feelings and behavior.

Actually, if there’s a lot of turmoil in your house and misunderstandings swarm like bees, it’s not a bad idea for every single family member to engage in some self-reflection. I’m not saying it’s easy to ask them to do this — it’s hard enough getting everyone to clear their own dishes off the table — but if you take the lead perhaps they’ll follow your example. If not, you’re still ahead of the game because at least you’ve taken responsibility for your own actions.


Strike a Balance

Good communication can go a long way towards depressurizing home life. Try zipping your lip and using your ears once in a while. You’ll be amazed at how much loved ones are dying for someone to listen more and judge less. So rather than offering unsolicited advice to your angsty sixteen-year-old (who won’t appreciate hearing your opinion anyway) let him tell his side of the story for a change. You don’t have to agree. You just have to listen.

Pick your spots. It’s okay to speak your mind with firm composure and let your loved ones know what you need when the situation calls for it. You may think your wishes are obvious to everyone, but they aren’t always. Articulating them directly without accusations can be an amazingly effective way to defuse tense situations.

Putting differences aside and giving family members the respect and consideration they crave helps when there are big issues to resolve. It helps in handling the small, everyday issues too. In my house, for instance, I try to tell my wife where I’m going every time I leave the room, even if I’m just going to the kitchen for a drink. This may seem like over sharing but it helps improve our communication and avoid misunderstandings.


Find Support

Whether you’ve asked for it or not, never feel guilty about accepting help when you really need it. Welcome it gratefully and graciously wherever it comes from — and it can often come from unexpected places. When one of my patient’s husbands unexpectedly had a stroke, the parents at her child’s school got together and organized a support system for her. People she’d never spoken to stopped by with a week’s worth of meals. Someone offered her rides to and from the hospital. Another mom organized play dates for her child every day after school. She described it as an incredibly touching experience; it opened her eyes to how willing people are to help someone in need — a good life lesson.

Also, if things are really rough at home, I urge you to talk it out with someone. I’m not saying you should constantly whine about your troubles, but keeping your frustrations bottled up does neither you nor anyone else any good. Sharing lifts burdens, both great and small, off your shoulders.

If you don’t have a sympathetic, trusted confidante, see a therapist. Actually, consider therapy even if you are blessed with a strong support system. A trained professional can often provide a fresh perspective and insights into your family issues. She can act as a mediator to defuse family tensions and help resolve age old grudges. Your therapist has no bone to pick with anyone so she’s free to act as the neutral party who offers fair and honest advice. Plus you should never worry about a therapist gossiping about your business to the neighbors. She’s honor bound to keep your secrets safe. When merited, urge other family members to seek professional counseling and consider family counseling as well.


Prepare Yourself

Sometimes you can see problems coming from a mile away — and sometimes they hit you like a bus. Preparing yourself to weather stormy situations isn’t always possible but there are times when it is.

Take having a baby, a great example of a very “happy” form of stress. The birth of a child is one of the most joyous events in a person’s life. However, along with all the joy comes 2:00 a.m. feedings, colic and a charming little phenomenon known as dirty diapers. You can’t stop these inevitabilities from coming but you can minimize the stress they cause. Get as much rest as you can between feedings, set up a schedule to distribute the work and get as much as possible done before the baby arrives. While you’re at it, set up a visiting schedule so you aren’t bombarded with a well-meaning crowd on the baby’s first day home. (There’s always that clueless aunt who asks the new mother to brew some coffee for her.) When you do have visitors, don’t be shy about referring them to the handwritten list of things they can do to help or asking them to cover for you while you catch a nap.

The fact is with a little forethought there are probably plenty of home life issues you can prepare yourself for, or at least certain aspects of them. That’s the idea behind working mom Judy Weist’s lists. She realized that she became overwhelmed unless she got organized. Instead of passing the pressure on to the rest of her household she passed the gift of organization down to her stressed-out son. That’s a nice outcome.

On a larger scale, you can put a little money aside for a rainy day to help fix a leaky roof. Learn everything you can about caring for an elderly parent to avoid making mistakes and maintain your sanity. You can’t expect the unexpected but you can expect that something unexpected is inevitable.


Make Time

Just as flowers need water and sunshine to thrive, so do relationships benefit from careful cultivation. Setting aside time for your loved ones is essential for staying close and connected. It could be that your young daughter is acting up because she doesn’t know how to express her desire to spend more time with you. Perhaps that’s why your spouse is acting up for that matter! Maybe it’s time to consider a smaller house like Priscilla Dann-Courtney did.

Without being too morbid, I like to remind my patients about the information that is going to appear on their gravestones. I’ve often heard that the “dash” that separates their birth date and death date represents their life. I ask them — and I’ll ask you — what will your dash represent: All the hours you put in at work or the fact that you were a great dad, an attentive mother, a caring son or a loving wife?

This not so subtle reminder about the importance of prioritizing family is something we all can use from time to time. We can get wrapped up in work and everyday minutia but we shouldn’t forget the goodbye kisses, the small thoughtful gestures and the “I love yous.” Though their annoying habits can drive you up the wall and they can be so frustrating they bring you to tears, your family is your one and only. Home is truly where the heat is. Take that to heart.

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