Parasympathetic: How Play and Community Can Help Families Destress

Parasympathetic: How Play and Community Can Help Families Destress


Resolve chronic stress with these six simple tips!

Do you ever feel like you can’t catch your breath?

Does an emotional meltdown from your kid make you feel like kicking and screaming right along with them?

I’ve been there -- and back again.  Read on for some tips to help you (and by extension, your child) find your zen.

From Flight-Fight-Freeze to Rest and Digest

In times of intense stress, our nervous systems flip into sympathetic mode, often referred to as ‘fight or flight’.  We need to be able to transition back into parasympathetic mode in order to digest our food, get restorative sleep, and heal.  Discharging accumulated stress can help us get there.

Confronted with a constant onslaught of stressors, our nervous systems can become stuck in a sympathetic state.  What’s worse, our inability to properly regulate our nervous system makes it so much harder for our kids to handle the big feelings they experience each day.  They need us to resolve our own emotions so that we’re capable of holding space for theirs.

In their book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, sisters Dr Emily Nagoski and Dr Amelia Nagoski address the emotional exhaustion that happens when stress builds up in our bodies.  In this article, we’ve summarized their guide to resolving chronic stress and added our own ideas for incorporating these suggestions into life with small children.


Whatever you do, don’t forget to breathe.  

Deep breathing lowers blood pressure and heart rate, sending the body signals of safety.  Guided meditations can be helpful, and there’s a world of options available for both adults and children.  Simply reminding my son to take a few deep breaths usually deescalates a stressful situation, particularly if I breathe along with him.

At its worst, the chronic stress I experienced last year made it so that I was unable to take a full, deep breath for weeks on end.  The following suggestions were instrumental in helping me ease back into a parasympathetic state and truly catch my breath.


Exercise is fantastic at discharging any kind of stuck emotion.  Anything from a ten-second sprint to a long hike through the woods can go far towards releasing accumulated stress.  Layering in time in nature, grounding (bare feet on the earth), water, and sunlight will amplify the beneficial effects of movement.

My favorite way to move with my son is to join him on the trampoline for a game of bounce tag.  Blasting your favorite music and dancing is another fantastic way to get the whole family moving.  Whatever you do, make it FUN!


Humans are social animals.  The benefits of connection with the people we love cannot be overstated.  Introverts may find crowds of people to be an added stressor, but gathering with the same few people each week goes a long way towards regulating our nervous systems.

My absolute favorite way to meet our need for connection is to meet up with other families in nature.  I love to sit in the shade with friends, watching our kids run wild.  Your local Parents’ Nook Bubble is a wonderful opportunity for you and your children to develop deeper connections with other families in your community.


Tears allow for a much-needed emotional release.  You probably know already how important it is to let children express their emotions in this way.  Have you seen in your own child how much steadier they are after a good cry?

Talking to a dear friend or professional counselor can provide a safe space for tears to flow.  Some people pair with listening partners for a safe place to vent.  Partners will take turns listening to each other while they talk, scream, rage, cry, laugh, brag… whatever it is that needs an outlet that day.

Fiction often taps into stored emotions in need of release.  You may find that you cry more easily reading a good book when your own life has been stressful lately.  Children’s books often set me off, the way they go straight to the heart of things.  And Coco gets me every time.


This one can be harder to access as an adult in a state of chronic stress, but it’s a miracle worker with children!  When I’m silly, my son feels safe and loved.  Laughter is such powerful medicine, letting children offload significant amounts of stress.

Even when I have trouble seeing the humor in things, hearing my son’s laughter is such a comfort.  Whenever stress begins to build, I play the clown to get him laughing, and we feel connected again.


Free play is inherently creative.  Here at Parents’ Nook, we strive to provide children with an environment that invites exploration and play.  You can do this at home by providing your children with open-ended materials, but the stuff is secondary.  

Children are capable of entertaining themselves, provided their other needs are met first.  My son is an intensely gregarious child who will resist playing on his own if his needs for human connection haven’t been met first.  He needs loving attention from me and plenty of time with friends to be optimally regulated.

Many adults have lost the ability to tap into a flow state, that creative capacity that is inherent in all children.  In times of stress, we might feel completely cut off from our creative impulses.  Do whatever feels most accessible to you.

In times of intense stress, singing provides me with an emotional release.  Sometimes I go to the sea cliffs near my house to belt some showtunes or an Otis Redding song; I always feel so much better afterwards.  Like deep breathing, singing stimulates the vagus nerve and helps bring the body back into balance.

Simply being out in nature can help families tap into their ability to let loose and play.  Swing from a branch, create a mandala of fallen leaves, hop from rock to rock…  Let your children take the lead and remind you how to live in the moment.

In future articles, we’ll dive deeper into how we can regulate our nervous systems and help our children do the same.  In the meantime, we’d love to hear from you!  How do you nurture your family’s wellbeing after periods of stress?