Parental Stress: What it Does to Your Children
If cold and flu season teaches us anything, it is that kids pick up everything. This is not limited to only germs, though. From the time they are in the womb, until they are young adults, our kids can even pick up our stress and anxiety.
As parents, we have a vital, instinctive, and emotional connection to our children. This connection allows us to sense when they are in trouble, what we need to do to help our baby when she cries, and how to protect them. It is this connection that fosters our parent-child bond and allows us to pick up on their insecurities, needs, and desires. This bond gives us what we need to care for our children, while ignoring the fact that we are exhausted and overwhelmed.
This connection also goes another way. Our children are connected to us as well. And through this connection, they can pick up on our stress and anxiety throughout their lives. A child’s mirror neurons, which they will later use to develop the skill of empathy, causes them to be sensitive to our state of emotions. They mirror our stress, without even realizing it, and release their own stress hormones. This is what causes us to be able to read other’s emotions, and babies and children are born with this and continue to develop it into adulthood. While this is a good thing for our relationships, it can also have negative impacts on us, especially when what they are exposed to is stress and anxiety.
Parents and children today are facing stressors our past generations did not face. We deal with hectic schedules, lack of sleep and rest, overworked parents and children, school stressors, bullying, cyber bullying, anxiety over marriages, health, finances, and our attempts to balance it all. We are trying to help our children grow into responsible adults, while also trying to enjoy their childhood. Many parents overfill schedules in an attempt to give their children the best possible childhood they think they need. Kids have more homework and intense social lives. All of this adds up to stress. Children today are experiencing higher levels of stress, anxiety, and mental health problems than ever before.
The Impact of Stress
Stress is more than just a word. It is a chemical reaction within our bodies which causes us to release our fight-or-flight hormones. This stress response can be beneficial when we are in danger or need to react, but constant stress over smaller issues can cause problems and cause our responses to be overdramatic. Being in constant states of stress or allowing our bodies experience too much stress can have dramatic effects on our health, from heart disease, to allergies, to autoimmune diseases, to mental health problems. During pregnancy, these hormones can cross the placenta as well. Researchers have found that high levels of stress during pregnancy are correlated to children with ADHA and other behavior issues.
We are born with specific DNA codes and our biology plays an important role in who we become. But just as important, if not more, is the environment in which we live. While we are born with a specific DNA sequence that defines who we are, the environment in which we are raised can greatly impact our brain development. Specifically, trauma during childhood can cause developmental problems in the gray area and hippocampus area of the brain, which can result in immune problems, health problems, social issues, addiction, and other developmental problems later in life. Additionally, through the process of interaction with our caregivers and environment, our brain’s neuron connections can be heightened or harmed. Research has shown that our underlying genetic basis is the result of our genes, while the expression of these genes or what genes are “switched” on or off, can vary based on our interactions with our natural and social environment. Therefore, our natural and social environments play a large role in determining our health, development, and personalities.
Although stress is often a factor in the development of these issues, it is, of course, not the only precursor. Daily life, diet, exercise, and other aspects of our lives can contribute to our health problems. Many of these issues do not have one single cause.
The Good News
Our parental stress can cause health problems to both us and our children. But we are in control of our lives and our choices. We can take the necessary steps to manage stress, build resilience, and help our children deal with their own stressors. We can create a healthy and loving environment for our children. We can choose to make time for connection and foster a loving relationship with our children. We can walk them through times of stress and model examples of how to effectively handle stressful situations. We are their most important ally and we have the innate connection with them to guide and lead them on their journey.
By: Emily Scott, PhD
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