Let’s look at an example. Imagine that another child hits yours as they exit the school gates. Instead or having a chat with the other parent then soothing your child, a stressed parent can feel an inner button pushed by the experience. He or she will overreact, yell at the other child, and tell off the mother.
Your own child is left to watch, uncomforted. They take on board the message that you as a parent are not available.
The world is no longer a safe place. Not because another child reached out and slapped them, but because they are left feeling, “Mommy or Daddy cannot help me.” Worse, they can somehow feel it’s all their fault, and stop feeling comfortable being themselves.
Stress transfers from one person to another through what is called ‘empathic stress’.
If we are watching someone else be stressed, we don’t just feel their stress mentally or emotionally, we even replicate it biologically. Our own cortisol levels shoot up.
A 2014 German/USA study found that if the person observing knows the stressed out person intimately, they the react up to 40 per cent more strongly. Given how attuned children are to their parents, you can imagine how acutely they can feel parental stress.
A study that hit headlines showed that parental stress is ‘contagious’ for infants. Cardiovascular sensors measured the heart rates of mothers and infants both before and after the mother was asked to give a presentation.
The mothers who were given negative feedback on their presentation were reunited with their babies. Within two minutes the babies heart rates increased. It was as if they were ‘catching’ their mothers stress.
Children Mimic Your Stressful Habits
‘Modelling’ is a psychological term for the way we learn by observation. It’s not as simple as just imitation. For example, we also decide whether or not to take on a behaviour depending on the result we see the other person achieving with it.
But the more consistent your behaviours are, the more you child sees you achieving things through stress – getting things by yelling, for example? The more likely they are to begin to act just like you.
Stress and Ad Hoc Parenting
Stress causesexhaustion and foggy thinking. The more stressed we are, the less consistent our parenting becomes. We start substituting healthy meals with junk food, we don’t notice that our kid’s bedtime has passed, we forget to sign the permission slip. These are, on their own, not the be all and end all of parenting.
But the more we let our parental stress go on, the more this can become a growing snowball of inconsistency. While naturally resilient children might manage, a child who needs structure can start to exhibit his or her own stress in response.
So What Can Be Done About Parental Stress?
There are many good tactics to protect your children against your stress. These include:
A talk therapist creates a safe space for you to vent. This means you are far less likely to take out your stress on your children. He or she helps you get to the real root of your stress.
Sometimes it turns out that parental stress has triggered old unresolved issues that are behind all the anxiety you are going through. And your therapist will help you find stress management tools that work for you personally.
Harley Therapy connects you with highly experienced London therapists who can help you with parental stress. Not in London or the UK? Try our sister site, with UK-wide therapists and Skype therapists who you can book from any country.
Still have a question about parental stress and how it affects your children? Post a comment below.