Pressure Cooker: How Your Stress Can Affect Your Kids

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Pressure Cooker: How Your Stress Can Affect Your Kids

The latest employment numbers are disappointing. Casualties in Afghanistan keep mounting. One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime. Tax season is around the corner. And have you heard organic isn’t really organic?

Are you stressed yet?

It may be no surprise that a new survey by the American Psychological Association shows that the majority of American adults live with moderate to high levels of stress. As a nation, we are busy, we are financially overextended, and we are too tired to do the things we know might relieve our stress. What might surprise many parents, however, is how our stress is affecting our children. The 2010 APA Stress in America study concludes, “Overall … parents are underestimating their child’s awareness of their stress and, therefore, the impact it could be having on their child’s emotional well-being.”

Are the Kids All Right?
Sixty-nine percent of parents interviewed believe their stress has only a slight or no impact on their kids. But 91 percent of children surveyed said they know a parent is stressed. The result, the kids reported, are feelings of sadness, frustration, and worry. Forty-seven percent of tweens said they feel sad when their parents are stressed; 43 percent of teens said they feel worried. One in five children reported feeling a great deal of stress, but only 8 percent of parents were aware of this.

Clinical psychologist and APA member Dr. Elaine Ducharme has seen this phenomenon in her practice for years, such as with a mother who brought in her young teen, who wasn’t listening, was misbehaving, and was not always telling the truth (though she was getting good grades in school). The mother was worried. The teen was a reluctant patient, but once Ducharme got the girl and her parents in together, it became apparent that the girl’s behavior was a reaction to her mother’s stress. “[Parents are] so anxious that [their] kids won’t be perfect,” says Ducharme. “They’re worried they’ll be seen as a bad parent … The kid reacts to it.”

The Mind-Body Connection
We all know the physical toll stress can take. It’s not just affecting American adults; it’s also hurting our children. Nearly one-third of children in the survey reported having headaches, trouble sleeping, and/or an upset stomach in the past month, all symptoms associated with stress.

The high levels of stress rubbing off on our kids—and the lack of positive habits to combat that stress—are also contributing to childhood obesity. According to the study, overweight children are more likely than their healthy-weight peers to report that their parents are often or always stressed. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle, explains Ducharme. Stress leads to weight gain and weight gain leads to stress, in both children and adults. Rather than turning to active pursuits to combat stress, children, particularly those who are overweight, report turning to sedentary escapes, like television, video games, listening to music, eating, and napping.

Preventing Trickle-Down
How can parents keep their stress from trickling down to their kids? First of all, they can take care of themselves. The study showed that adults understand the importance of managing stress (69 percent of respondents said stress management is important), and they know what they need to do: eat healthy, exercise, and get enough sleep. The sticking points, as always, are time, money, and willpower.

If we won’t do it for ourselves, however, maybe armed with this knowledge, we’ll do it for our kids. “When parents can do something physically healthy, it really does do something positive for [their] kids,” says Ducharme. She recommends establishing several healthy habits that will help with stress:

  • Find an exercise partner. Instead of grabbing a friend for happy hour, grab her for a walk.
  • Don’t skip meals, and eat dinner with your family. The dinner table is a perfect opportunity to talk and to listen to your kids about what worries them.
  • Examine your “sleep hygiene.” Your bedroom should be used for sleep, rest, and sex, not the myriad other tasks we often bring to it. Make sure sleep apnea isn’t affecting the quality of your nightly rest.

You can also encourage your children to adopt healthier coping mechanisms. “[Adolescents] often deal with stress in writing,” Ducharme says. Suggest that your tween or teen keep a journal. You might also examine your child’s schedule. Has the need for achievement driven you both to the brink? Perhaps you can dial back your commitments. Are soccer, ballet, and piano lessons really helping your child?

At the very least, be aware of the ways your stress is coming out at home. The study showed children detect stress when they see or hear their parents arguing, complaining, or yelling. If you catch yourself in these behaviors, take a step back. Is it the stress talking? If necessary, take the conversation out of earshot.

Talk with your child about what worries him or her. An encouraging 86 percent of tweens and 74 percent of teens told researchers that they are comfortable talking with their parents about their causes of stress. It might take you, however, to start the conversation. If you’re tempted to share your own burdens with older kids, make sure to make your sharing is age-appropriate, and always follow up with your plan of action. If you’re going to say, “This is what I’m stressed about,” then say, “And this is how I’m going to manage it.” Make your child feel like part of the team, but be careful not to transfer responsibility for your troubles to him or her.

Knowing that our own anxiety affects our children might be the kick in the pants this country needs. When you’re an adolescent, Ducharme says, “your parents are your walls.” If the walls are crumbling, what’s going to happen to you? It’s time we fortified those walls with healthy habits.