Contagious Stress: How Children “Catch” the Stress of their Parents
Stress: it’s not just for adults anymore. Today’s stress is affecting our children in many ways: they sleep less, eat poorly, stare at screens all day, and consume too much caffeine. Truth is, children have two sets of stresses to deal with: their own, and that of their parents.
“Stress is highly contagious between parent and child, even if the parent is unaware of his or her own anxiety,” says David Code, author of Kids Pick Up on Everything. Research shows that kids can “catch” their parents’ stress, overloading their systems until they act out or exhibit mental and physical illness. “Parental stress can weaken the development of a child’s brain or immune system, increasing the risk of allergies, obesity, or mental disorders,” Code adds.
A 2010 study on stress by the American Psychological Association found that 44% of the kids surveyed said that they had trouble sleeping because of stress, but only 13% of their parents noticed. Moreover, 20% of kids in the survey stated that they experience extreme levels of stress, but only 3% of parents surveyed said they believe the stress level of their child to be extreme.
It’s All About Attunement
Despite our best efforts to protect our children, how are they “catching” stress from us? Specialists are attributing this to attunement. “Attunement is basically a fancy word for what we used to call the mother-infant bond, where parent and child are so attuned to each other that the child can pick up on a parent’s stress and absorb it almost by osmosis,” explains Code. “It’s not so much what we say or do to our kids. It’s more about the ‘vibe’ we give off in their presence. We simply cannot fake being calm to our kids.”
Through my clinical experience dealing with stressed adults and kids, I’ve become aware of just how many parents are unaware of their stress levels. Much of this is accepted as part of being that “superparent” we see in movies and ads. We also spend much more time in the virtual world, up all hours on computers and portable devices, disconnected from our reality. More than half of all families don’t even eat at the same table anymore! Simply put, there is less quality time being spent between parent and child, and it shows.
Dr. Bakker’s Tips For Stressed Out Parents
“Parents can help by learning to talk about and model stress reduction techniques with their kids,” says Pediatrician Dr. Michelle Bailey, director of education at Duke Integrative Medicine and the author of Parenting Your Stressed-Out Child. “A lot of stress is not a reaction to actual danger, but a reaction to our thoughts,” she adds. “Being mindful gives children time to deliberately notice their thoughts and choose how to respond, rather than moving automatically into a stressful state.”
David Code mentions that “Lowering your own stress levels can do wonders for your kids as well, the lower our stress response, the fewer verbal cues parents pass on to their children, so kids’ stress response stays lower, too.” For stressed out parents, I recommend looking at the signs and symptoms of adrenal fatigue to see if you can relate. There’s no shame in working with a practitioner on stress management, especially if it’s affecting the wellbeing of you and your children.
Dr. Bakker’s Tips For Stressed Out Kids
With the younger kids, blow bubbles or play all manner of games. It is a perfect way to diffuse tension and stress. Lie down with your child and teach them to slowly and deeply breathe, a perfect tension buster. Take the dog for a walk, and lie down on the grass and look at the clouds in the sky. In essence, I encourage you to become a kid again.
With older children, communication and involvement is vital. Stay invested in their daily lives, no matter how embarrassed they may get. Fostering open lines of communication (this works both ways!) can fortify confidence and help remove doubt. Be open about your own worries and how you deal. It doesn’t make you less of a man or woman to be open and emotionally available.
Your children desire and need your presence, not your presents. Toys and gadgets are fun, but are no replacement for your time, attention and understanding. In my opinion, the most valuable time you can possibly spend is with your child. In the end, it’s time with their kids people wish they had back—not more time working.
About the Author:
Eric Bakker B.H.Sc. (Comp.Med), N.D, R.Hom. is a highly experienced naturopathic physician who has been in clinical practice for 25 years. Eric is passionate about improving people’s lives through proven wellness and lifestyle principles, natural medicine practice as well as public and professional practitioner education. Eric specialises in candida yeast infections, as well as adrenal fatigue, and thyroid disorders. Dr. Bakker has written one of the most comprehensive books on yeast infections called Candida Crusher. Website: candidacrusher.com You can complete his online survey to determine if you have a yeast infection here, or link through to his many YouTube videos: www.yeastinfection.org Dr. Bakker’s Blog: www.ericbakker.com