Parenting Stress: Why it matters, and what we can do to get relief
© 2015 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved
The personal costs of parenting stress
Do children bring happiness or strife? That's what S. Katherine Nelson
and her colleagues wanted to know. They'd seen conflicting research on the
subject, surveys that came to opposite conclusions, and they were pretty sure
they knew why.
It must depend on stress -- the negative emotions, relationship
tensions, sleep troubles, and financial pressures that parents experience.
took a deeper look, reviewing nearly one hundred published studies, and what
they learned was this:
Parents are happier than
their childless counterparts when the burden is relatively light. They are
happier with their kids have easy temperaments, and when their kids don't have
behavior problems or medical conditions. They are happier when they have high
levels of social support, and they are happier in their later years, when the
kids have grown up and left the nest (Nelson et al 2014; Nelson et al 2013).
But otherwise it's a wash, or else parents tend to feel worse. And what determines the worse? Any one of these conditions --
- Having at least one child with a difficult temperament
- Having at least one child with medical, emotional, or behavior problems
- Having only low levels of social support
- Being a single parent
Having a young child
It's hardly a surprising checklist. And as every burdened parent knows, the trouble tends to snowball. Stress is contagious.
instance, we know that infants can "catch" stress from their parents.
In an experiment where researchers deliberately stressed mothers -- by
having them deliver a speech to a disapproving, critical audience -- the
stress spread to babies too. Once reunited with their mothers, babies
began to mirror their mothers' distressed heart rhythms.They also became more
inhibited around strangers (Waters et
research is consistent with other studies that show a link between
adult stress in the home and infant physiology. When babies grow up
listening to frequent,
angry arguments -- including spats overheard while they sleep -- they're likely to experience higher spikes of the stress
hormone cortisol and increased activity brain
regions linked with the processing of distressing emotions (Towe-Goodman et al 2012; Graham et al 2013).
isn't hard to imagine how such reactions could amplify a parent's
stress. In the heat of the moment, your parenting stress triggers a negative reaction in the baby, which stresses you even more.
But what about the long-term? Experiments on nonhuman animals suggest
chronic exposure can change the way a baby develops.
Pressure a mother rat -- by making her
think a hostile male lurks nearby -- and her babies will grow more slowly,
eventually becoming adults prone to anxiety and stress-related disease (Nephew
and Bridges 2011; Moles et al 2008).
Overtax a mother monkey -- by putting
her on an erratic foraging schedule -- and her babies will show less interest
in play and exploration. As adults, they will be less social, and they may end
up with smaller brain volume in several regions of the cerebral cortex and hippocampus
(Meyer and Hamil 2014).
Developmental research on humans is
observational, not experimental, so when we find links between parenting stress
and long-term outcomes, we're less certain about causation. Did the parent's stress
cause problems in the child? Is the parent stressed-out because her child has
problems? Or is there a third factor, something that causes trouble for both
It's hard to know, but given what we've
learned from animal experiments, we've got reason to think that parenting
stress can be a cause as well as an effect. And in studies where researchers
tracked the development of human children over time, they found that parental
stress preceded child behavior
problems. Kids tended to act up after their parents began to experience intense
stress (Neece and Baker 2008; Baker et al 2003; Thomason et al 2014).
Other research helps connect the dots.
When Melissa Sturge-Apple and her colleagues studied the interactions between
mothers and toddlers, they found that stressed-out parents were prone to one of
two reactions. Some mothers became
hyper-reactive when their toddlers were upset. Their heart rates spiked, and
they took a long time to bounce back. They
tended to be more snappish, hostile, or controlling towards their kids.
mothers -- very often, mothers who had themselves grown up with chronic stress -- reacted as if they were burnt-out. When
their toddlers were distressed, these
mothers seemed relatively disengaged and unsupportive (Sturge-Apple et
way, stress made mothers less
sensitive and responsive, and kids got less help coping with their emotional troubles. Perhaps, too, these hassled and worn-out parents made fewer attempts to show physical affection at home, resulting in missed opportunities to improve family relationships and help kids bounce back. Studies indicate that emotional warmth and nurturing touch can counteract the effects of toxic stress on the growing brain (Meaney 2001; Sharp et al 2012; Luby et al 2013).
Put it all together, and we might get an environment capable of
reprogramming the way a child's genes work, altering the development of
the stress response system. The
process has been documented in rats, and
recent research suggest it happens in humans too: Parenting stress
childhood has been linked with epigenetic changes,
environmentally-triggered alterations that "turn off" key segments of
the DNA and put kids at higher risk for stress-related problems (Essex
et al 2011).
It seems, then, that parenting stress can lead to a cascade of trouble. What can we do about it?
Feeling worried or guilty isn't
Anticipating problems can be a good thing when it allows
us to plan ahead and avoid trouble. Guilt can motivate us to avoid
repeating mistakes (Tangney et al 2007). But these feelings become
maladaptive when we overreact, hold ourselves to unrealistic standards,
or get distracted from finding practical solutions. For conscientious
parents, worry and guilt may be a major cause of stress.
we really need is to make parents feel better -- competent, calm,
secure, empowered, supported, and inspired. One step is to help parents find practical ways to keep their high-strung babies calm and emotionally healthy. But overtaxed parents also need help making their well-being a priority.
On the next page, I present ten practical, evidence-based tips for coping with parenting stress.
References: Parenting stress, part one
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Content of "Parenting stress" last modified 7/2015
Black and white photo of woman: trublueboy / free images
Image of mother and infant macaque: Asman and Lenoble / wikimedia