On Healing 6/23/2008: Parents’ stress harms children

Research published last year found that when parents are distressed, their children report a poorer quality of life. Obese children are less likely to lose weight.

I’ve reported before that most children over 13 complain of stress in their lives, and this study, in the journal Obesity, confirmed what I hear every time I speak with a group of teenagers: Parental stress is part of the cause. Usually I start by asking how many in the room experience stress caused by homework, peer pressure, parental expectations, or self-imposed pressure to perform. Half the students typically raise their hands for each issue. But when I ask how many live with parents who are under stress, almost all of them raise their hands. And when I ask how many feel they are negatively influenced by their parents’ stress, nearly all hands go up again.

So hardworking parents who think they are sacrificing their happiness for their children’s welfare may be doing harm rather than good.

I consulted with a 17-year-old girl who told me she worried about her parents. Their marriage was good and neither one was depressed, but she felt both were under a great deal of stress. Her parents worked full-time and tried to provide their children with everything they could – soccer, music lessons, etc. – and she was so worried about their stress level that she worked very hard to get good grades in order that they wouldn’t worry. When she had a problem at school or was feeling depressed, she never told them, so as not to add to their stress. She told me that she kept everything inside. This girl, the oldest of three, also told me that she cut her arms every day to deal with the emotional pain.

Childhood obesity, cutting, eating disorders and depression are complex issues that are usually caused by multiple factors. Typically when we think about these disorders, we tend to blame peers, advertising or pressure to perform. But stressed-out parents who are living unfulfilled lives can be a significant contributing factor. There is also plenty of evidence that parents living with stress are less likely to be able to provide the support and nurturing that their children need to deal with these illnesses.

Teenagers inevitably tell me they want their parents to be happier and less stressed. One girl said she wished her parents would “have some meaning in their lives other than me.”

Many parents say they are stressed because they are working hard – to give their children every opportunity for the future. But when I ask if, 20 years in the future, they would like their children to be living the lives they have now, an uncomfortable silence fills the room.

So what is a parent to do? Once you understand that you and your children are suffering for the same reason, make a commitment to open your mind and your heart to some new possibilities. Nothing changes without commitment. And this kind of change must begin inside of you.

Spend some quiet time thinking about what your life means to you and whether you are living consistent with your deepest values. Think about what brings you great joy, and the price you pay for self-sacrifice. Next, have this discussion with your spouse or partner. Then open it up to the kids. All the kids. These discussions are about matters of the heart, so they will be very intimate – which, despite the discomfort, is what children most want from their parents.

And then make some decisions about how your lives might change. Remember, spending time with things and people that bring you joy and happiness not only nurtures your body and your mind, it is also an act of love for your children.

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