Walk into a crowded room and ask for a show of hands from anyone who has not felt stressed-out in the past six months. If you find a hand-raiser, pull them aside, and ask their secret. My bet is not one hand will be raised. Truth is, we all experience stress at varying degrees, and many times it overwhelms and overtakes us. As parents, we have to ask the question, “Is my stress level affecting my child?”
The short answer is, yes… but there’s more to the story than that. Bear with me here.
LET’S EXPLORE STRESS
Most people think stress is bad, and we should do everything we can to eliminate it from our lives. The less stress, the better. I admit: I’ve thought this for many years. However, that’s not entirely true.
Let’s flip the script somewhat: Stress actually plays an important role in our lives. By definition, stress is the normal reaction the brain and body has when change occurs. You know about change: the boss assigns another project, the overdue bill arrives in the mail, the in-laws announce they’re coming for dinner (not that this would ever stress me out personally… in case anyone asks).
And we experience responses to stress in different ways: increased heart rate, heavier breathing, cloudy thinking, jitteriness, headaches, stomachaches… the list goes on.
Nevertheless, stress is vital. Without it, we couldn’t avoid dangerous situations, meet deadlines, or have a competitive edge.
Our eyes wouldn’t dilate for a wider sight range to look for danger.
Your breathing wouldn’t speed up, carrying oxygen to the brain for sharper mental acuity.
And your heart rate wouldn’t increase, giving you a boost of energy to meet a particular challenge.
These are all good things. But here’s the kicker: our brains and bodies are only meant to experience these bouts of “good” stress for short periods of time, enough to work through whatever change is going on. Stress turns “bad” when we camp out in these responses for a prolonged period of time.
Our brains and bodies aren’t designed to handle this well. Matter of fact, our brain can actually restructure itself and function in a chronic state of stress. (Doesn’t that sound wonderful?) Have you ever met someone who seems on edge, stressed out, ready to snap? More than likely their brain has trained itself to stay in that “fight or flight” mode. And this has some terrible effects on body, mind, emotions, and relationships.
What this all boils down to is not whether or not you have stress (nor necessarily the level of stress, although that plays a part of it), but what you’re doing with your stress.
So back to the kids. Is your stress level affecting your child? Of course it does—and how it affects them depends on what you’re doing with the stress.
THE EFFECT OF PARENTAL STRESS ON CHILDREN
Ellen Galinsky, author of Mind In the Making and researcher at the Families and Work Institute, has shown that parental stress (or more accurately, parental distress) spills over onto our children. Galinsky’s research indicates children almost have a sixth sense when it comes to detecting parental distress. Maybe you’ve experienced this with your own kiddos. They pick up on the tension in your facial expressions and the worrisome tone of your voice. And the worst part is, children mimic your tension and behavior. If you are freaking out, even just on the inside, they are more prone to play monkey-see-monkey-do.
To further the point, University of Maryland researcher Nathan Fox and his colleagues looked into how parenting styles affect how children regulate emotions and deal with stress. An interesting finding of his showed that one of the least helpful characteristics were parents who are alarmists. These are parents who see danger everywhere and predict the worst-case scenarios in their minds. They make regular use of the phrases “You are going to hurt yourself” or “Be careful!” or “Please don’t fall!” These parents have worry written all over their faces and wear their distress like a bright orange caution vest for their children to see.
The big takeaway point here for parents is not Don’t Get Stressed; rather, parents need to model how to handle stress in healthy ways. In Galinsky’s words, “…you matter—and that includes how you convey stressful situations to your child.”
SO WHAT’S A (STRESSED) PARENT TO DO?
Keep in the forefront of your parenting mind that the idea is not to eliminate stress, either from our own lives or that of our kids, but to learn to deal with distress in a healthy way. It’s very tempting to want to shield our children from the stressors of the world, but those stressors serve to bolster your child’s development. Megan Gunnar, researcher at the University of Minnesota and considered to be the foremost authority on stress and coping in children, says, “A childhood that had no stress in it would not prepare you for adulthood. If you never allow your child[ren] to exceed what they can do, how are they going to learn to manage adult life—where a lot of it is managing more than you thought you could manage?”
Model healthy ways to cope with your own distress. One of Nathan Fox’s latest studies found that when parents have someone to turn to for support during stressful times, it has a positive effect on their children’s social development. The big lesson is, have a healthy support system available for you. And be sure to practice self-care. When you regularly do intentional acts of taking care of your mental, physical, and emotional health, not only are you mounting fortifications to guard against distress, you are also showing your kids how to build those same guardrails.
When you are having a bad day when distress might be getting the best of you, use this as a learning opportunity for your children. Say something to your kids like, “Today doesn’t feel like a good day for me. Sometimes mommies and daddies have bad days when they feel worried about certain things. That’s okay—I know that everything is going to work out and that I don’t have to feel this way all the time. Here’s how I’m going to help myself feel better today…” And then, share with them how you’re going to work through the stress you’re feeling. Voila!—a stellar teachable moment.
On stressful days, let your kids know that it isn’t their fault. Since children often do have that “sixth sense” to indicate when you’re feeling stressed out, it can be easy for them to feel responsible for it. Ensure them that sometimes bad days happen to both children and adults, it’s nothing they said or did, and we all have the power to overcome the feeling of being fearful, worried, or anxious.
One final thought:
If you’re married, do everything you can to handle marital conflict in a healthy, respectful way. We know from research that when handled poorly, parental conflict, is emotionally and physiologically traumatic for kids. John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist and researcher, tells us that even kids as young as six months can detect when unhealthy conflict is happening, and it has a negative impact on development. For some great information on how to handle marital conflict in healthy ways, take a look at this blog, this one, and this one, too.
So, does your stress level affect your child or not? Well, yes. But maybe the real question is, does how you handle stress have an effect on your kids? It certainly does, and the effect can be either positive or negative depending on how you’re handling it. Times of stress, those inevitable changes you experience that cause your brains and bodies to respond in certain ways present opportunities to teach your children valuable lessons for adulthood. Show your children the power they have to control stress rather than have stress control them. And it begins with you.