Family stress: An evidence based guide to stress in parents and children

© 2008-14 Gwen Dewar, all rights reserved

Family stress in evolutionary perspective

  • The baby won’t stop crying.
  • Your family needs you, but you’ll endanger your job (and paycheck) if you don’t go to work.
  • You make a mad rush to get your child’s toothache treated, but you arrive too late and the office is closed.
  • On the way to the park, your toddler suddenly dashes out into a busy street

The triggers are different, but the effects are the same. Your body is flooded with stress hormones—adrenaline and the glucocorticoids. Your pulse quickens. You breathe faster.

You are alert and high-strung. Your blood pressure shoots up. Your blood sugar rises, and the blood flow is redirected from non-essential systems—like digestion and repair—to the muscles required for strength and speed.

This is the stress response, your survival kit for coping with threats. It’s a helpful in a crisis, but nothing is free. Shifting to emergency mode means investing less in other important functions, and stress reactivity is intrinsically taxing. It wears you out. So if you experience such stress responses very frequently, it can, over the long-term, cause problems. Chronic stress increases your risk of disease. It can shorten your life. In children, it can even interfere with brain development.

This may sound very dire and worrying, but there is also good news. Research suggests that we can protect each other from the effects of toxic stress.

In experiments, good social support seems to have lengthened the lives of opens in a new windowstressed-out birds (Monaghan et al 2012).

And there is growing evidence that kids stuck in stressful environments can nevertheless thrive — if their parents supply the opens in a new windowright kind of care.

So it’s important to understand stress and what we can do about it.

In these pages, you’ll find evidence-based information about:

In addition, see my blog posts

as well as these posts about epigenetics, family stress, and parenting:

And here is an overview of some of the topics I cover.

Stress and pregnancy

Pregnant women under severe, prolonged stress are more likely to suffer miscarriage, complications, and premature birth. Exposure to high levels of stress hormones in the womb may program the fetal brain to secrete more stress hormones later in life, increasing the risk of adult conditions like obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease (Sapolsky 2004). Prenatal stress may also cause neurodevelopmental delays in children (Poggi-Davis and Sandman 2006).

But a healthy pregnancy isn’t necessarily stress-free. The stress hormones play an important role in fetal development. They may also prepare a woman’s brain for motherhood. Read more about opens in a new windowstress hormones during pregnancy.

Childbirth stress

Everybody knows that childbirth is stressful. What’s less well known is the negative effect opens in a new windowchildbirth stress can have on a parent’s postpartum experiences. Is there a remedy? Research suggests that social support — both during and after childbirth — make a big difference.

Postpartum stress

Caring for newborns can be notoriously stressful. This article discusses opens in a new windowthe causes of postpartum stress, and what parents can do to cope.

Babies and children get stressed out, too

Children who’ve been abused or neglected suffer from stress disorders. But what about kids who are loved and well-cared for? While the consequences are less extreme, everyday, chronic stress takes a toll.

For instance, growing up near the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder exposes children to a variety of environmental stressors and puts kids at higher risk for chronic disease and delayed brain development (Luby et al 2013)

Brain scans also suggest that opens in a new windowbabies who overhear frequent verbal arguments — even in their sleep — develop atypical stress responses.

And children don’t need to experience poverty or witness family stress to get into trouble. As I note opens in a new windowhere and below, poor sleep is a stressor in its own right — one that might cause emotional problems and attention deficits. Daily hassles can be quite stressful, too, depending on how you handle them. Some babies may react very negatively to an opens in a new windoweveryday bath.

Then there is the stress experienced outside the home, in opens in a new windowdaycare and at school. Kids may have problems with peers and opens in a new windowteachers. They may also feel pressured to perform. Even first graders suffer from  opens in a new windowmathematics anxiety, and it interferes with learning.

Worrying? Yes. But there is a remedy. As I note below, kids benefit from sensitive, responsive caregiving.

The protective effects of social support

A growing body of evidence converges on the same point: The effects of stress, even the really bad stress, depends a great deal on the other people in our lives.

opens in a new windowExperiments on animals demonstrate that stressful, unsupportive partners can shorten our lives. By contrast, living with someone who makes us feel secure protects us from stress-related damage.

This may be particularly true for children, especially children who are otherwise at risk.

Got a highly reactive, irritable baby? Research suggests that such babies can turn into the opens in a new windowbest-adjusted kids — if they receive sensitive, responsive parenting. Understanding what stresses babies, and how to avoid those stressors, may set many kids on the right path.

For instance, babies subjected to stressful prenatal conditions may escape with no lasting effects if they receive lots of opens in a new windowaffectionate touch (Graham et al 2010). Other research hints that parents can opens in a new windowprotect kids from the toxic stress of poverty.

Moreover, social support makes a big difference to kids coping with pressures at school. Research suggests that opens in a new windowgood teacher relationships can spare kids unnecessary stress and help them excel. In fact, one study has found that teacher social support was the most important factor in an adolescents’ long-term mathematics achievement (Gregory and Weinstein 2004).

Finally, parents can reduce family stres–help children and themselves– by giving everyone more opportunity to sleep.

Sleep problems and family stress

Sleep deprivation doesn’t just make you tired. It interferes with the natural pattern of stress hormone production.

Ordinarily, glucocorticoid stress hormones peak in the morning and decline throughout the day. Glucocorticoids diminish to their lowest levels during deep sleep.

If you skip deep sleep, several changes happen. Your body continues to produce glucocorticoids hormones throughout the night (VanReeth et al 2000), and the daily pattern of hormone production shifts. Glucocorticoids increase in the afternoon and evening (Spiegel et al 2003). You also secrete less melatonin–the hormone of sleep.

These changes are probably related to that terrible irony—-that sleep restriction makes people have an even tougher time falling asleep. Indeed, these hormonal changes are typically found in depressed people and insomniacs (Rodenback and Hajak 2001; Speigel et al 2003).

The strain of sleeplessness also impairs the immune system (Rogers et al 2001) and memory (Yoo et al 2007). And experiments confirm that going without sleep makes people react more negatively to disturbing images and hassles. As I note in this opens in a new windowblog post and sleep and family stress, both toddlers (Berger et al 2012) and adults (Helm et al 2011) lose their cool when they are sleep-deprived.

Are you suffering from sleeplessness? See these opens in a new windowsigns of sleep deprivation, and, if you’ve got a child keeping your awake, see my articles on surviving opens in a new windowbaby sleep patterns, solving opens in a new windowinfant sleep problems, and coping with opens in a new windowbedtime problems in children.

References: Family stress

Berger RH, Miller AL, Seifer R, Cares SR, LeBourgeois MK. 2012. Acute sleep restriction effects on emotion responses in 30- to 36-month-old children. J Sleep Res. 21(3):235-46.

Graham AM, Fisher PA, and Pfiefer JH. 2013. What sleeping babies hear: A functional MRI study of interparental conflict and infants’ emotion processing. Psychological Science. 24(5):782-9.

Gregory A and Weinstein RS. 2004. Connection and Regulation at Home and in School: Predicting Growth in Achievement for Adolescents. Journal of Adolescent Research 19(4): 405-427.

Hill K, Boesch C, Goodall J, Pusey AE, Williams J, Wrangham RW. 2001. Mortality rates among wild chimpanzees. Journal of Human Evolution 40: 437-450.

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.

Marlowe, F. 2005. Hunter-gatherers in human evolution. Evolutionary Anthropology 14: 54-67.

Monaghan P, Heidinger BJ, D’Alba L, Evans NP, Spencer KA. 2012. For better or worse: reduced adult lifespan following early-life stress is transmitted to breeding partners. Proc Biol Sci. 279(1729):709-14.

Poggi-Davis E and Sandman CA. 2006. Prenatal exposure to stress and stress hormones influences child development. Infants and Young Children 19(3): 246-259.

Rodenback A and Hajak G. 2001. Neuroendrocrine disregulation in primary insomnia. Rev Neurol. (Paris). 157:S57-S61.

Rogers NL, Szuba MP, Staab JP, Evans DL, and Dinges DF. 2001. Neuroimmunologic aspects of sleep and sleep loss. Semin Clin Neuropsychiatry. 6(4):295-307.

Sapolsky RM. 2004. Why zebras don’t get ulcers. Third edition. New York: Henry Holt and company.

Spiegel K, Leproult R, Van Cauter E. 2003. [Impact of sleep debt on physiological rhythms] Rev Neurol (Paris) 159(11 Suppl): 6S11-20.

VanReeth O, Weibel L, Spiegel K, Leproult R, Dugovic C, and Maccari S. 2000. Interactions between stress and sleep: From basic research to clinical situations. Sleep Medicine Reviews 4: 201-220.

Yoo SS, Hu PT, Gujar N, Jolesz FA, and Walker MP. 2007. A deficit in the ability to form new human memories without sleep. Nat Neurosci. 10(3):385-92.

Content of “Family stress” last modified 3/14