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.

So they 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.  

For 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 al 2014).

Such 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).

It 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 that 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 family members?

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.

Other 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 al 2011).

Either 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 during early 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 the answer.

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.

What 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

Baker BL, McIntyre LL, Blacher J, Crnic K, Edelbrock C, Low C. 2003. Pre-school children with and without developmental delay: behaviour problems and parenting stress over time. J Intellect Disabil Res. 47(Pt 4-5):217-30.

Essex MJ, Boyce WT, Hertzman C, Lam LL, Armstrong JM, Neumann SM, Kobor MS.2013. Epigenetic vestiges of early developmental adversity: childhood stress exposure and DNA methylation in adolescence. Child Dev. 84(1):58-75.

Graham AM, Fisher PA, and Pfeifer JH. 2012. What sleeping babies hear: a functional MRI study of interparental conflict and infants' emotion processing. Psychological Science 24(5):782-789.

Luby J, Belden A, Botteron K, Marrus N, Harms MP, Babb C, Nishino T, Barch D. 2013. The effects of poverty on childhood brain development: the mediating effect of caregiving and stressful life events. JAMA Pediatr. 167(12):1135-42.

Meaney MJ. 2001. Maternal care, gene expression, and the transmission of individual differences in stress reactivity across generations. Annu Rev Neurosci. 24:1161-92. benefits.

Meyer JS and Hamel AF. 2014. Models of stress in nonhuman primates and their relevance for human psychopathology and endocrine dysfunction. ILAR J. 55(2):347-60.

Moles A, Sarli C, Bartolomucci A, and D'Amato FR. 2008. Interaction with stressed mothers affects corticosterone levels in pups after reunion and impairs the response to dexamethasone in adult mice. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 33(4):462-70.

Nelson SK, Kushlev K, and Lyubomirsky S. 2014. The pains and pleasures of parenting: When, why, and how is parenthood associated with more or less well-being? Psychological Bulletin 140: 846-895.

Nelson SK, Kushlev K, English T, Dunn EW, and Lyubomirsky S. 2013. In defense of parenthood: Children are associated with more joy than misery. Psychological Science 24: 3-10.

Nephew BC and Bridges RS. 2011. Effects of chronic social stress during lactation on maternal behavior and growth in rats. Stress. 14(6):677-84.

Neece C and Baker B. 2008. Predicting maternal parenting stress in middle childhood: the roles of child intellectual status, behaviour problems and social skills. J Intellect Disabil Res. 52(12):1114-28

Sturge-Apple ML, Skibo MA,  Rogosch FA,  Ignjatovic J and Heinzelman W. 2011. The impact of allostatic load on maternal sympathovagal functioning in stressful child contexts: Implications for maladaptive parenting. Development and Psychopathology 23: 831-844.

Towe-Goodman NR, Stifter CA, Mills-Koonce WR, Granger DA and Family Life Project Key Investigators. 2012. Interparental aggression and infant patterns of adrenocortical and behavioral stress responses. Dev Psychobiol. 54(7):685-99.

Waters SF, West TV, Mendes WB. 2014. Stress contagion: physiological covariation between mothers and infants. Psychol Sci. 25(4):934-42.

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