We don't have to tell you that life can get crazy. What you probably don't realize is that your stress can trickle down to your kids in a big way.
stressed mom holding daughter
Credit: Shannon Greer

Shared Stress

Gretchen Francis can tell when her kids are stressed. Her boys, ages 3 and 4, don't furrow their brows, wring their hands, or even whine. Instead, they'll blow off steam by putting action figures in the toilet or tossing all the wipes out of a container. They'll dump folded laundry onto the floor, beg to be carried, or ask her to do things for them that they can handle on their own. The boys' outbursts happen like clockwork just before or after one of her husband's frequent out-of-town business trips. "Transition times are always tough," says Francis. "The kids' routine is shaken up; they have to deal with their dad being gone for a while, then readjust when he returns. When there's stress in the house, I see a big difference in my boys."

As a rule, children crave calm and stability. And that's difficult to achieve when family time is fractured by parents traveling, working late hours, and living with the constant demands of a crazy schedule. "Parents feel overwhelmed," says Kristy Hagar, PhD, a child neuropsychologist at Children's Medical Center Dallas, and a mother of daughters ages 4 and 6. "There's too much to do and not enough time. When you're stressed and time-pressured, children can hear it in your voice -- you say 'Let's go, let's go!' or 'Do it now!'" Think about it: If you're frantic, your kids will feel more out of control too. "Children pick up on whether parents are fully there," adds Roni Cohen-Sandler, PhD, author of Stressed-Out Girls: Helping Them Thrive in the Age of Pressure. "When you're preoccupied, it makes kids, even babies, feel less safe, and they'll keep upping the ante by doing things like throwing tantrums to force you to pay attention."

Stress and Kids' Health

And that lack of security can have a real effect on their health. "Children who have higher levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, early in life are more anxious and easily stressed as older kids," says Marilyn Essex, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who has tracked stress and cortisol levels in one group of kids from birth through ninth grade. Researchers surmise that stress hormones in the brain may actually affect the development of brain regions that regulate the way we respond to tense situations. In essence, the more you stress, the less equipped you'll be to deal with it.

Fortunately, there's plenty that parents can do to shield kids from the daily strains of life. In her research, for example, Dr. Essex found that caring fathers keep children with high cortisol levels from being overwhelmed even if their moms are stressed. At the very least, you and your spouse should learn how to manage your own reactions to anxiety so that it doesn't affect your kids.

It's also important to tune in to your child's stress signals. It can be difficult to tell when kids are anxious -- they often can't tell you that they're upset or why. Here's an age-by-age guide to what you should look for -- and what to do about it.

crying boy being held up
Credit: Shannon Greer

Babies: Make Them Feel Safe

Babies are hardest to read because the signs -- crying and irritability, which can indicate strain in older kids -- are seen as normal for infants. "Look for subtle behavior changes such as fussing at times when your baby is usually calm," says Tamar Chansky, PhD, author of Freeing Your Child from Anxiety. Your baby is reacting to the present moment, so take stock of what's going on around her. For instance, is she particularly cranky when you spend a couple of hours at the mall or running errands around town? "A visit to the grocery store can be very stressful for infants because of the onslaught of noise, light, and strangers," says Dr. Chansky. To ease her anxiety, you might plan only one stop per trip out of the house. And while you're out and about, talk to her about what you're doing, the things you're seeing, even narrate your to-do list. Make direct eye contact and use lively facial expressions and vocal tones. The point is to connect with your baby. When you trade smiles, talk, coo, and play with her, you build her sense of security.

One of the best ways to make your baby feel safe is to comfort her whenever she cries. "Some parents think the attention will make a baby more dependent and clingy, but the opposite is true," says Megan Gunnar, PhD, professor at the University of Minnesota's Institute of Child Development, in Minneapolis. Research shows that a crying baby who is soothed quickly tends to cry less, not more. "When your child is upset, just holding her calms her down, especially if you can take a relaxing breath first," adds Marcy Axness, PhD, an early-development specialist in Los Angeles. "Plus, interacting and connecting with your baby wires her brain in a way that eventually helps her calm herself. Babies who haven't been comforted don't develop that internal capacity to self-soothe."

Toddlers: Encourage Exploration

Once your child is walking, he'll want to explore and push his limits -- and that alone invites a certain amount of stress. "Toddlers are trying to master challenges like reaching the sink or manipulating a tricky toy without help," says Dr. Chansky. "Even these everyday strains can stress a child out if they add up. And if you get frustrated with your child for not being able to do something, it only intensifies that anxiety." This is also prime time for tantrums -- and the way you react to meltdowns can teach him a lot about handling pressure. If you tense, he'll feel anxious too. A child who is overwhelmed at this age may hit, pinch, or throw toys when he plays. In addition, he can have trouble settling down at bedtime.

To ease the angst, empathize with your child and be patient. "You might say, 'I know stacking those blocks is tough -- it was hard for your brother too,' " says Dr. Chansky. Once he knows you understand how he feels, he'll be more likely to calm down, and you can talk about how best to tackle building together.

Dr. Gunnar has found that children who are frightened by something out of the ordinary, such as a clown, become even more anxious when parents push them to confront their fears ("Don't be so scared -- it's just a clown"). It's better to get down to his level and explain in a calm voice who the clown is and why he's there. In Dr. Gunnar's research, children whose parents tried this were more likely to muster the courage to approach whatever they found upsetting.

If your child attends daycare, just the long hours of commotion may be tough to handle. Between 70 and 80 percent of toddlers in daycare show increasing levels of stress hormones as the day wears on, partly because toddlers have few social skills and find interacting with others to be hard work. If your child seems clingy and fussy, spend time observing the daycare setting. "There should be a warm feeling of community," says Dr. Gunnar. How big is the group? Do the kids receive a lot of attention from the provider? Are the shyer kids getting support? Are there enough breaks for quiet time between activities? If you're satisfied with your childcare setting, take a look at your mornings. Are they a chaotic rush? Try getting up 15 minutes earlier and playing with your toddler for a bit before you leave. When you pick him up, make sure you spend some quality time just focused on him -- turn off your phone, put the mail aside, and open a book to read together, or get out some paper and crayons so you both can unwind from the day.

Preschoolers: Help Them Adjust to the Big World

At this age, your child's active imagination is likely to trigger new kinds of stress. "Her magical thinking may transform a shadow into a scary monster or a curtain into a ghost," says Dr. Chansky. Though these fears may seem irrational to adults, they are very real to kids. Some signals that stress is a problem for your child: She begins to backslide in her potty training, regresses to babyish behavior like sucking her thumb, and acts up by breaking the rules. Preschoolers are also more likely than younger kids to complain of headaches and tummy aches.

To calm your child down, make it clear you take her worries seriously, and use her anxiety to teach her about the world. "If your child is afraid of storms, go to the window and explain how to count the seconds between the lightning flash and the thunder," says Dr. Chansky. "That helps a child feel in control."

Also, minimize exposure to upsetting TV programs such as news shows. "Preschoolers are old enough to be frightened by scary scenes; plus, they think it's happening right outside their door," says Nancy Ryan-Wenger, PhD, professor of nursing at Ohio State University College of Nursing.

It's always important to talk to your child about what she's feeling, what worries her, and how you can help. "She may forget exactly what you tell her, but she'll get the message that you care and that's what's important," says Dr. Chansky. To ease transitions that you know are on the way -- starting preschool, your upcoming business trip -- you might count down the days on a calendar that you decorate with pictures showing what will happen.

The good news: At every age, giving your child support is a great stress antidote. "Meet your child's basic emotional needs and he'll reach school age with a good sense of himself and an ability to handle stress, which will make him resilient throughout life," says Dr. Essex. "Basically, being sensitive and responsive to your child's needs prevents much of the damaging effects of stress."

Stress During Pregnancy

Feeling anxious when you're pregnant is normal -- after all, you're about to take on a major new responsibility. And although short-term worry isn't harmful, women whose stress hormones soar due to severe anxiety or depression are more likely to deliver premature or low birth weight babies (probably because stress hormones help trigger labor). Also, high levels of maternal stress hormones may have an impact on a child's psychological development. A 2005 University of Rochester Medical Center study found a link between excessive stress during pregnancy and increased levels of cortisol in kids at age 10. One theory suggests that anxiety in pregnancy increases the mother's own levels of cortisol, which crosses the placenta and influences the baby's brain development, including its stress-response system. These changes may make children more susceptible to anxiety. A more recent study, led by the same investigators, found that feeling anxious during pregnancy may affect your baby's sleep patterns. The researchers suspect that Mom's elevated stress hormones may alter fetal brain development, leading to early-life sleep problems.

Signs that stress may pose a risk to you or your baby include: feeling like you can't shake your anxiety, frequent crying, social withdrawal, and lack of interest in things you usually enjoy. If you have any of these symptoms, talk to your doctor right away.

Copyright © 2007. Used with permission from the December 2007 issue of Parents magazine.

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