Flight attendants instruct you to put on your oxygen mask before placing one over your child’s face for an excellent reason: If you don’t take care of yourself first, you can’t properly care for your kids.
This same concept applies to stress. Taking steps to minimize and manage your stress is key to maintaining a happy, healthy relationship with your children.
Signs of Stress
Individual signs of stress are as varied as the people experiencing them. Stress can manifest itself physically, psychologically, and behaviorally. Common signs of stress include headaches, stomach pain, tightening in the chest and neck, irritability, difficulty concentrating, as well as overeating, alcohol abuse, and insomnia.
Children respond to their parents’ stress in markedly different ways, depending on their age and temperament.
“When I get stressed, my four-year-old son becomes extremely clingy,” says Nancy, a mother of three in Cranberry, New Jersey. “While my three-year-old will withdraw and get very quiet.”
Children often react to a parent's stress by regressing to an earlier, developmental stage, according to Roxanne Dryden Edwards M.D., Medical Director of the National Center for Children and Families in Bethesda, Maryland. Edwards is the author of Infertility From Both Sides of The Stethoscope: A Guide From a Doctor Who’s Been There.
“If the parent is overly stressed, an infant may be less likely to settle or have difficulty sleeping,” says Dryden-Edwards. “Toddlers who are deep into potty training might suddenly start wetting the bed, and it just goes up developmentally matching their age.”
School-age children might cry more easily or act out at home and at school. Stressed out teens may fall behind academically, have difficulty concentrating, overeat, over-sleep or engage in risky behavior like unprotected sex and drug or alcohol abuse.
This does not mean that a bad day at work or a fight with your spouse will irrevocably damage your child’s well-being. But over time, high levels of parental stress can send troubling signals to kids—signals they can perceive but not always understand.
Effects of Stress on Children
Even infants and pre-verbal age children can sense shifts in their parents’ moods through a variety of non-verbal cues including facial expressions, tone of voice, and how quickly Mom and Dad respond to their needs.
“Just because children can’t articulate your stress doesn’t mean they don’t feel it,” says Dryden-Edwards. “What they lack in language skills and abstracting ability, they make up for in lack of defenses.”
While children can sense that their parents are stressed, they cannot always understand why. Often, they will misinterpret a parent's bad mood as being their fault.
A child’s tendency to blame themselves comes from his or her belief that the world revolves around them, notes Elizabeth Berger M.D. author of Raising Children With Character: Parents, Trust and The Development of Personal Integrity. Although this narcissistic viewpoint is a normal phase of childhood development, it leaves children vulnerable to unnecessary self-blame and stress.