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What Is the Parenting Stress Index?

August 22, 2023

5 min.

Parental stress can take a toll on parents, their children, and the entire family. Learn how the Parenting Stress Index (PSI) can help mental professionals spot parents’ stress and create interventions to support their mental health.

By: Alex Bachert, MPH

Clinically Reviewed By: Dr. Don Gasparini

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Table of Contents

What is the parenting stress index?

The Parenting Stress Index (PSI) is a screening tool that’s used to measure parental stress in the parent-child relationship. First developed in 1983, the PSI was designed to help mental health professionals evaluate parents’ stress levels and understand how various factors may impact their role as caregivers. The tool is particularly useful in situations where a parent’s stress has started to negatively impact their well-being, the well-being of their children, or the overall family dynamic. The PSI can help inform mental health professionals of strategies to support the entire family. 

How does the PSI work?

Child characteristics

Parent characteristics

Situational and demographic life stress

A child’s challenging parenting traits including distractibility, hyperactivity, adaptability, reinforcement of parenting, demandingness, mood, and acceptability.

This area evaluates stressors or dysfunction in parents, with higher scores often indicating feelings of overwhelm or unpreparedness. Parental factors assessed include competence, isolation, attachment, health, role restriction, depression, and spousal dynamics.

General stress factors that could affect an individual’s capacity to handle the responsibilities of parenting or caring for children, including challenges like financial constraints or social isolation.

The PSI typically requires 20 to 30 minutes to complete and can be administered by a mental health professional in person or online. It consists of 120 questions that are scored using a 5-point scale (Strongly Agree, Agree, Not Sure, Disagree, Strongly Disagree). The questions assess three areas of stress in the parent-child relationship: child characteristics, parent characteristics, and situational or demographic conditions.

Child characteristics 

This domain assesses characteristics in a child that might make them difficult to parent, such as:

  • Distractibility or hyperactivity
  • Adaptability
  • If they reinforce a parent
  • Demandingness
  • Mood
  • Acceptability

Parent characteristics

This domain assesses potential sources of stress or dysfunction in the parent. High scores are most often seen in parents who feel overwhelmed or are unprepared to parent their child. Parent characteristics include:

  • Competence
  • Isolation
  • Attachment
  • Health
  • Role restriction
  • Depression
  • Spouse 

Situational and demographic life stress

This domain assesses overall stressors that may impact a person’s ability to manage the demands of parenting or childcare, such as financial difficulties or social isolation. 

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What causes parenting stress? 

Being a parent or caregiver is intrinsically stressful. Right from the start, parents worry about their children’s development and safety (Are they meeting their milestones? Is that toy safe?). Then as the children get older, there’s a new set of concerns, such as schoolwork, making friends, and their mental well-being. 

In addition, parents often face various stressors that impact their mental health, including financial worries, work-life balance challenges, anxiety from work, caregiving responsibilities for elderly family members, limited social support, family planning uncertainties, and issues related to self-esteem and identity (to name a few).

How to decrease parenting stress

It’s perfectly normal to feel overwhelmed by parenting responsibilities, but it’s important to learn how to manage your stress to avoid parental burnout. Finding healthier ways to manage stress can help parents embrace the beauty of raising children while prioritizing their own mental health and happiness. Here are a few tips to help reduce parenting stress, prevent burnout, and be a more present parent or caregiver.

1. Practice self-care 

When you take care of your mental, physical, and emotional health, you’re better prepared to handle whatever parenting challenges come your way. If you find yourself struggling with your mental health, consider the following self-care practices to help you feel more balanced. Parents may have very little free time, but in that time try to prioritize self-care and activities that help you recharge. 

Here are a few simple ways to practice self-care:

  • Practice mindfulness, meditation, or relaxation techniques (even just 5 minutes per day)
  • Start your day with a healthy breakfast
  • Prioritize regular exercise, even if it’s a walk around the block 
  • Take a hot bath or shower to relax at night
  • Go for a drive and listen to your favorite music or podcast
  • Journal 

2. Do your research

Not knowing how to help your child can be frustrating and stressful. If you or your child are struggling to manage your mental health, know that there are plenty of resources to help you gain the knowledge and confidence to support your family. For instance, Charlie Health has a list of clinician-recommended parenting books for learning more about adolescent development, setting boundaries, and addressing problematic behavior with your kids effectively. You might also review the American Academy of Pediatrics parenting website.

3. Connect with other parents

No one understands a stressed parent better than another stressed parent. Connecting with parents going through similar experiences is a great opportunity to ask for advice, discuss stressful situations, and spend time with people who understand exactly what you’re going through. Whether it’s reaching out to current friends who are also parents or joining a local parenting group to meet new friends, having a support network is beneficial for your mental health. 

If you don’t have access to a community of parents, the following organizations are dedicated to  connecting parents and caregivers with additional support.

4. Shift your perspective

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when you’re being pulled in multiple directions at once. Next time something challenging pops up — whether it’s your toddler crying for another lollipop or your boss with another urgent request — take a moment to reset your perspective. Remember that parenthood is a journey filled with ups and downs, and releasing unrealistic expectations can help to manage stress.

To do this, try asking yourself how you’ll feel about the situation next week. Something may feel like the final straw in the current moment, but think about how the situation will impact you tomorrow or even next week. 

5. Seek professional support

If the stress of parenthood is starting to affect how you take care of yourself and your family, don’t hesitate to seek support. Mental health professionals are trained to help people navigate life changes and challenges. Many therapists will use cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) to help parents align their thoughts and actions with their mental health goals

More specifically, cognitive behavioral therapists are trained to help people: 

  • Cope with stress
  • Understand difficult emotions 
  • Change negative thoughts 
  • Improve relationships
  • Improve self-confidence and self-esteem

Are there other caregiver screening tools?

If you’d like to learn more about the impact of parenthood on your mental health, make an appointment with a mental health professional to review the PSI or another screening tool. The PSI is just one of several resources used to assess and address parenting stress. Others include:

  • Parental Stress Scale (PSS): a shorter survey (18 questions) that focuses on how parents view their roles in their children’s lives.
  • Parental Burnout Assessment (PBA): a 23-item questionnaire that measures four dimensions of parental burnout: emotional exhaustion, emotional distancing, feelings of being fed up, and contrast with how they were before having kids. 

Manage your stress with Charlie Health

Charlie Health’s personalized virtual Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) offers mental health treatment for teens, young adults, and families dealing with mental health challenges. Charlie Health’s team of compassionate mental health professionals are here to listen to your story, understand your needs, and create an appropriate treatment plan. We’ll also work with your insurance provider, if covered, to make sure you get the help you need and deserve. 

Fill out our quick assessment to get started today.

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