Modern parents are repeatedly told that their stress has a lasting effect on their children’s development.
For example, this Daily Beast post, alarmingly titled “Stressed Parents Scar Their Kids:”
“…when parents are under emotional, financial, or other forms of stress, it can alter their children’s patterns of genetic activity at least through adolescence and perhaps longer. And since some of the altered genes shape brain development, the effects of parental stress might permanently wire themselves into children’s brains.”
Or this Forbes article, “How Parents’ Stress Can Hurt A Child, From The Inside Out:”
“…there’s a small but intriguing body of evidence suggesting that beyond a child’s disposition, a parent’s stress level can affect a child’s very makeup, including his or her risk of mood disorders, addiction, and even disorders like ADHD and autism.”
Headlines claiming that parental stress “rewires a kid’s DNA” are scary, so they get clicks.
They also get clicks because stress is a fact of life. We’re all dealing with it. In America, 68% of all adults say they’re stressed. Meanwhile, 32% of parents say that their stress levels are extreme.
A 2007 survey of 1,000 from the American Psychological Association found that 90% of kids say they know when their parents are stressed – and it bothers them. It gives them feelings of sadness, worry, frustration, and annoyance.
But research shows that in normal or even elevated amounts, those typically aren’t “scarring” emotions.
Not all stress is equal.
Headlines like “Stress Has Lasting Effect on Child’s Development” fail to mention the difference between normal and toxic stress.
“Stress is a complex psychobiological process with biological, emotional, mental, and behavioral consequences, all of which influence one another.” – Dr. Ross A. Thompson, Stress and Child Development
In a medical sense, “stress” is the body’s physical response to challenging or negative circumstances. The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child identifies three main types of stress:
Positive stress, which is short-lived, causing minor physiological changes such as heart rate and hormone level. This type of stress is a common part of life.
Tolerable stress, which is more intense but still relatively short-lived. For example, the death of a loved one, a natural disaster, accident, and family disruptions such as separation or divorce.
Toxic stress. Toxic stress can be extremely harmful to children. It comes from intense adverse experiences sustained over weeks, months or years. Abuse, severe household mental illness, deprivation, profound trauma, substance abuse, and neglect can trigger toxic stress. More on toxic stress and children from Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child.
Parents dealing with normal stress feel guilty, assuming that their elevated stress is as harmful to their kids as toxic stress. But that’s not the kind of stress most parents deal with around their kids. Statistically, the four most common stressors in parents lives are work, money, family and health.
Science shows that some stress has benefits.
Researchers are starting to categorize the benefits of “good stress.” As NPR reports,
“… some scientists now argue that our usual narrative of stress — that stress is universally bad for health — is too one-sided and doesn’t reflect the reality that some degree of stress can actually benefit people. Stress isn’t always a bad thing.”
The Stress and Child Development publication from Princeton University describes how “stressful experiences that are mild or moderate, predictable, and of short duration are likely to enhance biological functioning and promote mastery and competence.”
The TED Blog article “Stress as a positive: Recent research that suggests it has benefits,” says that “stress can induce both good and bad habits.”
Health psychologist Kelly McGonigal shares a fascinating idea: “that the harmful effects of stress may be a consequence of our perception that it is bad for our health.”
Teaching kids about stress is one of the most important responsibilities of parenting.
It’s been shown that “parents play a major role in teaching children about the expression, regulation, and experience of emotion.” (Eisenberg et al., 1998)
By teaching our kids how to manage stress – which is a fact of life – we can give them tools that help them for the rest of their lives.
Mitigating the impacts of stress
The all-consuming nature of stress makes it hard to manage, and even harder to turn into a “teachable moment” for your kids.
In an NPR interview, Dr. Eldar Shafir said that dealing with stress is “like driving on a stormy night. You’re focused completely on the thing that’s capturing your attention right now, and other things get neglected.”
Making it worse, stress is contagious. 17 % of children who say that their parents are always stressed are more likely to say they’re stressed themselves, vs 2% of kids who say their parents are never stressed.
This stress can then create a negative feedback loop between parents and children:
“Parents should be aware that not only do their own emotions and parenting style affect the emotional outcomes of their children, but if they are not aware of how their children’s tempers affect them, they could fall into a spiral of ineffective and indifferent parenting which further contributes to negative behaviors from the children.” [link]
Episcopal minister and author David Code is well-known for his work on the effects of stress on parents and kids. His insights are useful though he can be a bit alarmist. (For example, I couldn’t find any evidence that normal parental stress gives kids ADHD, as he mentions here.)
He suggests that to deal with stress, parents have to get back to being social. He says, “I have never seen toddlers more satisfied or happy or fulfilled than when their parents are blabbing away with each other or with friends on the couch.”
Surveys also show that most people socialize to relieve stress.
Meanwhile, in this NPR Health article, Dr. Robert Waldinger recommends exercise. He says, “If you could give one magic pill that would improve physical health, mood, reduce weight,” this would be it. For stress relief and antidepressant effect, 30 minutes is enough. More on fast stress relievers for parents.
Comforting kids in times of stress has measurable benefits for them.
As this Harvard article makes clear, “If at least one parent or caregiver is consistently engaged in a caring, supportive relationship with a young child, most stress responses will be positive or tolerable.”
Meanwhile, “Children who have the support of caregivers manage more successfully than children who must rely on their own resources alone.” – Stress and Child Development
Other studies show:
“Supportive responses by parents invite children to explore their feelings by encouraging the child to express emotions or helping the child understand and cope with an emotion-eliciting situation.” (Eisenberg et al., 1998; Fabes, Poulin, Eisenberg, & Madden-Derdich, 2002).
“Supportive parental responses to children’s negative emotions have been found to be related to aspects of emotional and social competence including children’s emotion understanding and friendship quality.”(McElwain, Halberstadt, & Volling, 2007).
Even in situations of toxic, chronic stress “the neurobiological response to chronic stress can be buffered and even reversed” with the care of an adult, writes Ross A. Thompson.
In those toxic situations, kids don’t “necessarily become immediately hard-wired to create dysfunction that cannot be changed.”
Don’t let headlines about the “dangers of parental stress” stress you out even more.
For most families, the long-term impact of normal and even elevated parental stress on kids is much more subtle – and much less distressing – than pop-science headlines would have us believe.
These articles tap into parental guilt (and societal blame) about how the stressful, modern work-life balance affects our families. But the shape of modern life itself is stressful.
Parents shouldn’t be blamed for that, nor made to feel that a normal response to stress will damage their kids.
Footnote: The Secret History of Stress
Did you know that the “inventor” of the idea of stress, Hans Selye, “was a shill for the tobacco industry?
“… both Selye’s work and much of the work around Type A personality were profoundly influenced by cigarette manufacturers. They were interested in promoting the concept of stress because it allowed them to argue that it was stress — not cigarettes — that was to blame for heart disease and cancer.” [link]