Parents have similar effects in older children, especially for collaborative tasks.
More generally, brain-brain synchronization can occur between any two people, including two strangers trying to collaborate on a task. Unless the parents are fighting with a lot of stress.
As you can see, the children sat on their mothers lap while watching the two videos on their laptops. In addition, both parties wore electrode envelopes that recorded their brain activity (using near-infrared functional spectroscopy). This allowed scientists to monitor brain reactions in real time.
However, the level of brain-brain synchronization depended on parental stress. Before the experiment began, the researchers gave each mother a completed questionnaire. This questionnaire asked parents to agree with rating statements as follows:
- “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.”
One way or another, the results suggest that mothers and children did not share the same emotional responses that followed in the cartoon.
Parents who reported high levels of parental stress were less suited to their children’s internal 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 daily understanding. When parents feel stressed, they are at greater risk of two types of maladaptive reactions. They tend to both:
- overreact to their children (blowing a fuse, getting upset to easily), or
- become withdrawn and emotionally unresponsive.
For example, the researchers recruited more than 150 mothers with young toddlers, and each family received the same treatment.
At first, the child was left alone in an unfamiliar room with a complete stranger. After a few minutes, the baby met his mother again.
Second, they took her mother and son to a playroom full of toys. Before leaving them together, the research assistant instructed the mother to play with her child "as usual at home".
During the experiment, the researchers observed the behavior of mothers and children. They also examined mothers for signs of depression and monitored the physiology of maternal stress using a wireless electrocardiogram system.
And the results?
As you can probably imagine, the kids were not calm and happy during the Special Situation. They felt sorry and their mothers responded. But not all mothers responded in the same way. Not during the Strange Situation, and not during subsequent visits to a room full of toys.
When their children began to act, these mothers reacted more gloomily or hostilely. They were also more likely to get boxes during free play because they became too invasive and direct.
And there was a group of mothers - often depressed - who looked exhausted. These parents showed less sensitivity to their children and were more stressed and similar than the mothers under low stress. Their most notable feature, however, was emotion. Of all the parents, fewer were emotionally involved.
How does parenting stress affect children?
First, the obvious thing: we know that stress is socially contagious. Although this is not our intention, our feelings of stress usually "infect" our surroundings.
Children don't have to be very old to understand what's going on. Research suggests that children experience increases in cortisol when they hear their parents arguing.
But what about the long-term? Can parenting stress cause harm to children?
This question is difficult to answer. We cannot do controlled experiments. Parents under stress cannot randomly assign some children to education. It would not be ethical.
Did parental stress cause problems for the child? Or was it the child's problems that caused parental stress?
It's hard to know, but time is of the essence.
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 discussed in other articles, studies suggest that promoting emotional warmth and touch may counteract the effects of toxic stress.
Sensitive and reactive care can increase a child's oxytocin levels, reverse adverse epigenetic changes, and have a positive effect on the child's health and development.
It is not difficult to imagine how parental stress can interfere with these processes. If you are stressed, tired and exhausted, you can make less effort to show affection for your child. You will miss opportunities to improve family relationships and help children recover.
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
However, these feelings subside when you become hyperactive, meet unrealistic standards, or tend to find practical solutions.
For conscientious parents, anxiety and guilt can be a major cause of stress.
However, in addition to the social and economic support I mentioned at the beginning of this article, parents really need information. Information that helps us feel better: more competent, more confident, stronger and more motivated.
For example, if you have a baby with a high strap, you need to find practical ways to keep the baby calm and emotionally healthy. Check out my parenting guide to help you deal with a stressed child.
If you have an aggressive or disruptive child, you need effective strategies that will lead him to more cooperation.
If you have a teenager who supports every application, you need to understand what children think about the legitimacy of authority. (And yes, you should also take direct steps to improve your emotional well-being. If you have recently had a baby, think about your mental health. Postpartum stress is a common problem, as is postpartum depression.