Mind Matters — Stress Is a Family Matter

Quite a while ago, I attended a meeting in Delaware in which the presenters were an entire family who had undergone the severe depression and suicide attempt of the father years before. They were to enlighten the audience about how they managed their journey through father’s battle with mental illness. As a psychologist and family therapist, I was astounded at their lack of insight about their own family system. They were presenting their “ordeal with Dad” all over the country and throughout the media supposedly to help other families gain an understanding into the issues of mental health.

However, their own understanding appeared to be limited by not seeing the broader family system picture. Actually, the now late teen and early adult children seemed to have more of a handle of how they affected one another than the parents had of how they affected the children.

Mother related that, oh Dad’s suicide attempt didn’t affect our son as much as the girls because he was such a youngster and they were teenagers and so knew more of what was going on. A little junction in the talk, son piped up that he himself had been hospitalized for depression when he became a teenager. No connection was made that indeed the youngest child of the family was affected by the tension and stress of the father’s illness and loss of work, and that perhaps his own depression was a delayed reaction to the quiet trauma he endured earlier in life.

We are too quick to reduce events to innate biological factors than to the effect of the system and the environment on our very genetics. (Epigenetics is the burgeoning field which links how stressors in the environment, e.g., the family can effect gene functions—these are not genetic mutations but more like an on/off switch for certain mechanisms.)

The bottom line is that the stress of the parents can have a direct stressful effect on the children. Children are emotional barometers for the feeling states of parents. Nothing needs to be spoken for the emotional transfer to occur. (The hot pot doesn’t have to speak to the cold pot for the heat transfer to occur!)

Recently, the American Psychological Association (APA) conducted the 2010 Stress In America survey. The findings sound the warning that chronic stress can have a profound impact on not only parents but also their children.

One-third of the parents surveyed noted that they experienced extreme stress. The survey of the children’s perception of their stress levels indicated that parents in general are underestimating “both how much stress their children are experiencing as well as the impact their own stress has on their children.” The APA survey’s conclusion is that parental stress level has a far more reaching effect on the children and teens of the family than many parents have assumed.

“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,” says psychologist Katherine C. Nordal, Ph.D., APA’s exectutive director for professional practice. “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. 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.”

There are so many stressors in our lives these days. If we’re fortunate to be working, there is the stress of work. And for those who have lost their jobs, the stress is worse. Somehow through all the stressors, parents can take heed that their stress reverberates throughout the family system. This is not about blame but about acknowledgment—so action can be taken to find ways to de-stress the family with little or no cost:

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