- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 28, 2000

Diane Lipton Dennis chuckles when she considers the questions she gets from parents who attend her seminars.

"I have parents of 3- and 4-year-olds who struggle with how to throw a birthday party for them and who to invite," says Ms. Dennis, founder and president of Lipton Corporate Child Care Centers, which provides backup child care and day care service to corporations in 10 centers in the Northeast.

"We're talking about high-powered CEOs and VPs of big, prestigious law firms and corporations who make million-dollar decisions every day, and they can't decide who to invite for their 4-year-old's party," she says.

Some aspects of family stress might be humorous, but the issue isn't so funny when families fail to appreciate or understand the specific pressures and stresses their friends and neighbors face.

So says Kim Nickerson, a psychologist with the American Psychological Association who has done research on stress as an assistant professor in the School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University.

"One of the things that has often been difficult for parents we tried to help is that many of the conflicting messages that they get from reading self-help books or watching Oprah Winfrey or watching the nightly news and seeing a story on parenting are coming from a very middle-class or affluent person," says Mr. Nickerson, a minority fellowship assistant director for the APA.

"Many of these strategies have no relevance or no context for many different kinds of families, and that can cause quite a bit of problems," he says. "It's important to understand parenting challenges, that stresses can be different, and it depends on where your family is situated in terms of social and economic status.

"One of the troubling things for me and many folks is that when you think of policy-making and [lawmakers'] understanding of particular stresses, they don't pay attention to the differences, and one solution may not be the same for everyone."

That mentality isn't endemic to policy-makers and lawmakers, Mr. Nickerson says. Families often fail to grasp that next-door neighbors or colleagues at work may struggle with vastly different kinds of stresses. Such families assume they have so much in common with their neighbors or co-workers that their challenges are similar.

"The parenting challenge of a stable middle-class or upper-middle-class household, where two parents are in the household, are very, very different from the stresses that a single-parent household faces, regardless of social status," Mr. Nickerson says. "I don't believe you'll ever see any poor families standing overnight to get a PlayStation, but you look at the families that are, and they are really stressed. It is real, and it is contextual.

"Stresses might even vary for cultural groups," says Mr. Nickerson, who has done extensive research in this area. "Asian communities have been excelling in terms of academic performances, but there is quite a bit of literature that points out that parents often put a tremendous amount of stress on their children to excel academically. One might find a lot of stress within those families that's a different stress than you see in African-American families, where many parents … deal with the stress of having to prepare their children for racism and race-related issues they're bound to encounter in their lives."

Despite their differences, many families interviewed about parenting stress say, not surprisingly, that communication and shared priorities help them deal with the inevitable stresses they face, particularly as the holidays approach and stress increases.

"We really have to be of one accord," says Bill Ables of Arlington, whose wife, Linda, is quitting her job as an optometrist next month to stay home with their 11-year-old son, Christopher. "If you have one person thinking this all sounds great, but we really need the money, then something is not right. Had we not done all the long-term planning, it would be a lot more difficult to make that decision.

"We know the holidays are going to be stressful, in a sense, because I'm leaving my job in December, right in the middle of [the holiday season], but we know God's going to take care of us," Mrs. Ables says. "That and communication and priorities are all we need."

Diane Shade of Glen Burnie, Md., who home-schools her four children, says the key to handling parenting stress is finding time to spend with her husband, Doug, away from the children.

"One of the things we always keep in the back of our mind is that we started out as just the two of us," she says. "That was the one relationship we had. We wouldn't have had our four kids without that first relationship. Once we get out of the house [by ourselves] sometimes, we say to each other, 'Am I married to you?' We really have to keep the relationship going."

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