Parental stress affects children of all ages. In fact, studies have shown that parents’ stress can put children at risk for behavioral, emotional, and learning problems, as well as health issues such as asthma. One recent study demonstrated that parental stress might leave an imprint on the child genetically.
In general, research has shown that parental stress is harmful for kids. A study published in December 2013 in the journal Pediatrics found that children exposed to domestic violence and depressed or anxious parents are less likely than children without those stresses to reach developmental milestones in language, movement, and social skills. That study involved nearly 17,000 children under age 6. Screening children for exposure to parental violence or parental psychological distress could help identify children who are candidates for early interventions because of their increased risk for poor mental and social development.
Parental stress can also have a lasting effect on children’s DNA, according to a study published in early 2013 in the journal Child Development. The results suggest that parents who are stressed during their children’s early years can leave a genetic imprint, which lasts into adolescence and can affect genetic expression later in life. Fathers’ stress levels were more likely to impact the DNA of daughters, while mothers’ stress levels impacted boys and girls.
Even infants are affected, according to a study published in 2004 in the journal Public Health Nursing. Researchers studied the relationship between early family environment with infants and childhood behavior at seven years of age. They found the quality of the marital relationship during infancy predicted the frequency at which fathers reported behavior problems.
Researchers reported in 2006, in the journal Early Human Development, that stressed, pregnant moms were more likely to have infants who cried and fussed more in the first six months after delivery.
Harvard researchers reported in 2004 that kids whose parents were highly stressed were more than twice as likely to develop asthma or allergies. Harvard researchers later published a review of studies on the subject. Studies, the researchers noted, have found prenatal exposure to stressful life events is associated with notably increased risks of autism, schizophrenia, and depression.
Studies have also linked parental prenatal stress to childhood obesity. In fact, Danish researchers studied more than 65,000 children to find prenatal stress resulted in a child being 68 percent more likely to be overweight by age 12 years.
If you’re worried that a stressful lifestyle might be affecting your kids, it might be a good idea to seek out therapy or find ways to reduce stress in the household. If the stress is unavoidable (perhaps because of a divorce or sick family member), a family therapist can help you devise strategies to reduce the impact on your family.
Reviewed by Dr. Kristie Rivers, September 2020
- Parental stress impacts children’s mental and physical health, as well as development.
- A parent’s stress can influence a child’s development for asthma, allergies, and even autism and depression.
- Stressed, pregnant moms are more likely to have infants who cry in the first six months after delivery.