Parenting stress damages your well-being, and it may alter the course of your child’s development. How does stress affect parenting, and what can we do about it?
What is “parenting stress?” What do psychologists mean by the term?
According to psychologists, parenting stress is the distress you experience when you feel you just can’t cope as a parent. The demands being placed on you are too high. You don’t have the resources to meet them (Deater-Deckard 1998; Holly et al 2019).
So what causes parenting stress? I could give you the airy-fairy answer and say, “it’s caused by your state of mind.” And to be fair, this isn’t altogether wrong.
There are a number of proven stress management techniques that can help cope. If you retrain your thoughts, you can experience real relief. That’s good news, and you can read more about it in my evidence-based tips for handling parenting stress.
But still. My goodness. Let’s not pretend that stress originates in the parent, or that every parent faces the same set of challenges! That simply isn’t true.
For instance, consider the results of a meta-analyses conducted by S. Katherine Nelson and her colleagues (Nelson et al 2014; Nelson et al 2013).
The researchers reviewed more than one hundred published studies about parenting, childlessness, and psychological well-being. What did they discover?
Sometimes parents report higher levels of well-being than do childless adults. But only when their burdens are relatively light.
In particular, parents tend to be happier than the childless if their offspring have grown up and left the nest.
Parents also report greater well-being if they have high levels social support, and/or kids with no problems: Children with easy temperaments, in good physical and emotional health.
But otherwise? It’s a wash, or parents tend to feel worse. And what determines the worse? Any one of these conditions:
- having at least one child with a difficult temperament;
- having at least one child with medical, emotional, or behavior problems;
- having only low levels of social support;
- being a single parent;
- having a young child.
Economic conditions are important too. When Jennifer Glass and her colleagues examined life in 22 Western countries, they found marked differences in the reported well-being of parents.
Compared to the childless, parents were worse off in countries where parents receive fewer subsidies and lack family-friendly work policies.
Where were parents at the greatest disadvantage? The United States was the worst, with Ireland, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand ranking as runners-up (Glass et al 2016).
So external factors matter. Tremendously. Can kids stress you out? Of course they can, and it’s normal to feel that way.
Can financial problems trigger parenting stress? Obviously.
Can social isolation, or a inadequate support system? You bet. Exposure to hostility, crime, discrimination, pollution, congested traffic? Yes.
If it threatens your ability to provide for your children — if it makes you worry about your ability to keep them safe, healthy, and thriving — then it can contribute to parenting stress.
Granted, this isn’t the most uplifting message. It’s more pleasant to pretend that parenting stress is a merely a state of mind. Think the right thoughts, and your problems will melt away.
But I believe it’s more helpful to confront reality.
For one thing, it helps us put things in perspective. A lot of parenting stress is caused by — or exacerbated by — structural features of society. Compared with our hunter-gatherer and early agriculturalist ancestors, we lack crucial support systems for raising our kids. (Read more in an upcoming post.)
Family-friendly government policies can help address this gap, but what if you aren’t lucky enough to live in a country with family-friendly policies? You’re left to fight for society-wide change, and — in the meantime — to scramble as best you can.
Still — whatever else you might do — you should reassure yourself that this isn’t a reflection on your worthiness or competence.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, that doesn’t mean you’re an inferior parent. You’ve just got too much on your plate. That’s important to remember, because feelings of inadequacy, defensiveness, guilt — these feelings make parenting stress worse.
The other valuable thing about confronting reality is that helps you identify specific sources of parenting stress.
Are your stressed out because your baby suffers from colic (excessive, inconsolable crying)? Because your toddler throws frequent tantrums? Are you going nuts because of sleep deprivation? Because you’ve got a kid with special needs? Because you’re trying to work at home while taking care of a young child?
Once you zero in a specific problem, you can start working on solutions.
But first you have to acknowledge the goal. You have to recognize that your feelings are worth fixing.
This isn’t something to dismiss, to push aside while you soldier on. It’s really important that you don’t feel overwhelmed, fed up, or burnt out. Not only because your well-being is intrinsically important. But also because it affect your parenting — and your children.
If you need convincing, take a look at the research.
How does stress affect your parenting?
The quick answer is that stress can make us less sensitive to our children — less capable of tuning into their thoughts, feelings, and needs.
And the results can be observed in our brains and behavior.
Brain study: Parenting stress undermines “brain-to-brain synchrony” between parents and children
As I explain elsewhere, it’s normal for parents and babies to experience a kind of “mind-meld” during face-to-face social interactions.
Their brains synchronize, as if they are experiencing similar thoughts and mental states. A specific area in a baby’s brain “lights up,” and immediately after, the parent experiences the same thing: Increased activity in the same, specific brain region.
Parents experience similar effects with older children, too — especially when we’re engaged in cooperative tasks (Reindl et al 2018; Miller et al 2019; Nguyen et al 2019).
More generally, brain-to-brain synchrony can arise between any two people — including two strangers — who attempt to collaborate on a task (Lu and Hao 2019).
And you don’t have to talk, or even gaze into each other’s eyes. Research shows that “brain-to-brain synchrony” can happen when parents and children aren’t communicating one-on-one, but instead just sharing a moment.
Unless the parents are struggling with lots of stress.
Recently, Atiqah Azhari and her colleagues explored the phenomenon in an experiment on 31 toddlers and their mothers.
As you can see in the illustration below, the kids sat on their mothers’ laps while both watched video clips on a laptop. In addition, both parties wore electrode caps that recorded their brain activity (via functional near-infrared spectroscopy). This allowed researchers to track brain responses in real time.
The mother-child duos saw several different animated clips, each depicting different characters and different emotions. And as they did, they experienced brain-to-brain synchrony in a region linked with emotional regulation and social reasoning (the medial left cluster of the prefrontal cortex).
But the degree of brain-to-brain synchrony depended on parenting stress.
Before the experiment began, the researchers had given each mother a questionnaire to fill out. This questionnaire asked parents to rate their agreement with statements like these:
- “Since having my child I have been unable to try new and different things.”
- “My child is not able to do as much as I expected.”
- “My child generally wakes up in a bad mood.”
Mothers who tended to agree strongly with such statements were judged to have more parenting stress, and these same mothers were less “in tune” during the joint viewing experience: They showed less brain-to-brain synchrony with their children.
What does it mean? We can’t know for sure. Maybe the stressed mothers were too distracted to get “on the same wavelength.” They didn’t process the emotional content that their children were viewing, so their brain activity didn’t match up.
Or maybe the children themselves were less emotionally responsive, less savvy to what was going on in the cartoon storylines. For reasons of their own, the toddlers of stressed-out mothers might have been less aware of what was transpiring on the screen, making their emotional states harder for mothers to track.
But either way, the results suggest that the mothers and children weren’t sharing the same emotional reactions as they watched the cartoon content.
Parents reporting high levels of parenting stress were less attuned to their toddlers’ inner reactions.
So that’s a peak at what’s happening in the brain. What happens outwardly? How does parenting stress affect care-giving?
Research confirms our everyday intuitions. When parents feel stressed out, they’re at greater risk for two types of maladaptive response. They tend either to
- overreact to their children (blowing a fuse, getting upset to easily), or
- become withdrawn and emotionally unresponsive.
For example, consider a study by Melissa Sturge-Apple and her colleagues.
The researchers recruited more than 150 mothers with young toddlers, and each family received the same treatment.
First, the toddler was left alone in an unfamiliar room with a complete stranger. After a few minutes, the toddler was reunited with his or her mother.
[Note: This is a standard testing procedure called the “Strange Situation.” You can read more about the Strange Situation in this Parenting Science article, but the important point here is that it’s stressful.]
Second, the mother and child were taken to a playroom full of toys. Before leaving them together, a research assistant instructed the mother to play with her child “as she normally would at home.”
Throughout the experiment, researchers observed the behavior of mothers and children. They also screened the mothers for symptoms of depression, and monitored maternal stress physiology with a wireless electrocardiogram system.
And the results?
As you might imagine, the toddlers weren’t calm and happy during the Strange Situation. They experienced distress, and their mothers reacted. But mothers didn’t all react the same way. Not during the Strange Situation, and not during the follow-up in the room full of toys.
Some mothers followed a low-stress trajectory. They did get ruffled when their children were upset during the Strange Situation. But they bounced back quickly, and they responded to their children’s distress in a calm, sensitive way. The best parenting on display.
Other mothers responded differently.
There was a group that experienced high levels of physiological stress during the Strange Situation. They were distressed because their children were distressed, and they weren’t able to bounce back quickly.
When their kids acted out, these mothers were more likely to respond in ways that were harsh, or hostile. They were also more likely to get bossy during free play — becoming overly intrusive and directive.
And there was a group of mothers — often suffering from depression — who seemed burnt-out.
These parents showed less sensitivity to their children, and, compared with low-stress mothers, they were more intrusive and bossy. But their most distinctive characteristic was emotional. Of all the parents, they were the least emotionally engaged.
So it appears that stress can make parents less sensitive, and more harsh, bossy, or emotionally withdrawn. What, then, are the consequences for kids?
How does parenting stress affect children?
First, the obvious: We know that stress is socially contagious. Even if we don’t intend it, our stressed-out emotions tend to “infect” those around us.
Kids don’t have to be old enough to understand what’s going on. As I explain in another Parenting Science article, even babies can sense when you’re stressed.
And, as I note here, research indicates that babies experience spikes of cortisol when they overhear their parents fighting.
But what about the long-term? Can parenting stress cause harm to children?
It’s tricky, answering this question. We can’t conduct controlled experiments. We can’t randomly assign some children to be raised by stressed-out parents. That would be unethical.
So developmental research on humans is observational, not experimental. And when we find links between parenting stress and long-term outcomes, we can’t be sure about the causation.
Did the parent’s stress cause problems in the child? Or was the parent’s stress caused by her child’s problems?
It’s hard to know, but the timing is suggestive.
When researchers have tracked families over the course of several years, they’ve found evidence for bidirectional effects. Child behavior problems can boost parenting stress, and parenting stress can escalate child behavior problems (Neece et al 2014; Baker et al 2003).
And then there’s the research on nonhuman animals.
Experiments on rodents and monkeys: Chronic exposure to parental stress can change the way a baby develops
Pressure a mother rat — by making her think a hostile male lurks nearby — and her babies will grow more slowly, eventually becoming adults prone to anxiety and stress-related disease (Nephew and Bridges 2011; Moles et al 2008).
Overtax a mother monkey — by putting her on an erratic foraging schedule — and her babies will show less interest in play and exploration. As adults, they will be less social, and they may end up with smaller brain volume in several regions of the cerebral cortex and hippocampus (Meyer and Hamil 2014).
How do these developmental changes work? One avenue is epigenetic — a process by which environmental factors can turn genes “on” or “off.”
It’s a process that’s been documented in rats, and research suggest it takes place in humans too.
In one study, teens were more likely to show evidence of epigenetic change if — during infancy and early childhood — their parents had experienced lots of stress (Essex et al 2011).
We also know that sensitive, responsive care-giving has long-term developmental benefits. So to the degree that parenting stress renders us less sensitive, our kids will miss out.
As I note in other articles, studies indicate that emotional warmth and nurturing touch can counteract the effects of toxic stress.
Sensitive, responsive care can boost a child’s oxytocin levels, reverse detrimental epigenetic changes, and have a positive impact on a child’s health and development (Meaney 2001; Sharp et al 2012; Luby et al 2013).
It isn’t hard to imagine how parenting stress could disrupt these processes. If you’re stressed– feeling hassled and worn-out — you might make fewer attempts to show affection to your child. You’ll have missed opportunities to improve family relationships and help kids bounce back.
It seems, then, that parenting stress can lead to a cascade of trouble. What can you do about it?
Feeling guilty or worried isn’t the answer
Anticipating problems can be a good thing when it allows you to plan ahead and avoid trouble. Guilt can motivate you to avoid repeating mistakes (Tangney et al 2007).
But these feelings become maladaptive when you overreact, hold yourself to unrealistic standards, or get distracted from finding practical solutions.
For conscientious parents, worry and guilt may be a major cause of stress.
So, aside from the social and economic support I mentioned at the beginning of this article, what parents really need is information. Information that helps us feel better — more competent, secure, empowered, and inspired.
For example, if you have a high-strung infant, you need to find practical ways to keep your baby calm and emotionally healthy. See my Parenting Science guide to coping with a stressed-out infant.
If you have a disruptive or aggressive child, you need effective strategies for steering your child in a more cooperative direction. See these Parenting Science tips.
If you have an adolescent who seems to resist every request, you need to understand what kids believe about the legitimacy of authority. (Read more here).
And yes, you should also take direct steps to improve your emotional well-being. For a self-help guide to stress management, see these Parenting Science tips coping with parenting stress.
If you’ve recently had a baby, take stock of your mental health. Postpartum stress is a common problem, and so, too, is postpartum depression. For more information, see my article about postpartum stress, and this Parenting Science guide to postpartum depression symptoms.
Is the current public health crisis stressing you out? Here are my thoughts about the changes we’re living through, and how to cope.
References: Parenting stress: Why it matters
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Content of “Parenting stress” last modified 4/2020. Portions of the text derive from an earlier version of the article, written by the same author
image of mother leaning forward, covering face, with young boy over her shoulder by istock / PaulBiryukov
Image of mother with hands on face and infant in her arms by globalmoments / istock
Image of father and stubborn child by fizbes / istock