Parent's Stress Has Major Impact on Children and Family, Survey Finds

Filed under: In The News, Research Reveals: Tweens, Research Reveals: Teens

stress picture

Studies show parents' stress has a big impact on kids. Credit: Corbis

Think you're good at hiding your stress from your children, or that your kids aren't affected by your freak-outs? Sorry, they're on to you.

Parents tend to underestimate just how much stress their children experience and the impact their own stress has on their children, according to the 2010 Stress in America Survey, released last week by the American Psychological Association (APA).

Findings from the survey raise red flags about the long-term impact chronic stress could have on our physical and emotional health and the health of our families, the APA reports.

"Americans appear to be caught in a vicious cycle where they manage stress in unhealthy ways, and lack of willpower and time constraints impede their ability to make lifestyle or behavioral changes," an APA news release states.

The APA also reports an emerging trend in which parents are underestimating how much stress their children experience and the impact their own stress has on their children. Children as young as 8 years old are reporting that they experience physical and emotional health consequences often associated with stress.

"America is at a critical crossroads when it comes to stress and our health," Dr. Norman B. Anderson, APA's chief executive officer and executive vice president, says in the release. "Year after year, nearly three-quarters of Americans say they experience stress at levels that exceed what they define as healthy, putting themselves at risk for developing chronic illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes and depression. All of us, including the medical community, need to take stress seriously since stress could easily become our next public health crisis."

The survey, conducted by the APA in August 2010, also found that children and adults who are obese or overweight are more likely to report feeling stress. And overweight or obese children surveyed said their parents were often or always stressed over the past month.

Children who are overweight are more than twice as likely to say they worry a great deal or a lot compared to children of normal weight, and they are significantly more likely to report their weight or the way they look as something they worry about. Further, children who believe they're overweight are more likely to say their parents are stressed out always or often than children who believe they are normal weight, according to the results.

In addition, children who are overweight are more likely to experience the physical health effects associated with stress, such as trouble falling asleep, headaches, eating too much or too little or feeling angry or getting into fights. They also tend to manage their stress in unhealthy ways, such as eating or taking a nap to make themselves feel better when they are really worried or stressed about something, according to the study.

Strikingly, one-third of parents report their stress levels are extreme -- a level of 8 to 10 on a 10-point scale, while parents overall say they are living with stress levels that exceed their definition of healthy.

And, although many feel it's important to manage their stress, few are succeeding in doing so. In fact, less than one-third believe they are doing an excellent or very good job of managing their stress, the survey found.

According to the children polled, these high levels of stress impact the family, yet, parents underestimate the impact their stress has on the family as a whole. Nearly 70 percent of parents of teens and tweens say their stress has little or no impact on their children, yet only 14 percent of children report their parent's stress doesn't bother them. Interestingly, one-third of children polled say they know their parent is "worried or stressed out" when they yell.

"Even though children know when their parents are stressed and admit that it directly affects them, parents are grossly underestimating the impact that their stress is having on their children," Dr. Katherine C. Nordal, APA's executive director for professional practice, says in the release.

It's these children -- who say their parent is always stressed -- who are more likely to report they have a great deal of stress themselves. Nearly half of tweens and one-third of teens say they feel sad; one-third of tweens and 43 percent of teens say they feel worried; and one-quarter of tweens and 38 percent of teens say they feel frustrated when their parents are stressed.

More than half of the parents surveyed say it takes effort to get their families to eat healthy foods and to be physically active. Yet, tweens and teens say they turn to sedentary behaviors, such as listening to music, playing video games or watching TV, to make themselves feel better when they're really worried or stressed.

"It's critical that parents communicate with their children about how to identify stress triggers and manage stress in healthy ways while they're young and still developing behavioral patterns," Nordal says. "If children don't learn these lessons early on, it could significantly impact their physical health and emotional well-being down the road, especially as they become adults."

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.