My children have always been extremely good at picking up on my moods. They can sense them in my tone and point out when I’m showing my “stressed face”. I’ve noticed that if my kids are misbehaving, speaking sternly can make them more upset. A gentle voice at their level is best able to calm them down, even though it can be extremely difficult to stay calm in the face of challenging behaviour. I have to regulate my own behaviour as well as theirs, which is not easy when there is screaming involved.

Child and parent stress and anxiety

Stress and anxiety are on the rise among children and teens, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. In 2021, the rate of anxiety among children and adolescents globally was as high as 20.5% – almost double the 2012 figure. Some say that we are experiencing a “global crisis of child and adolescent mental health”. While stress and anxiety are linked, there are differences between the two. Stress is a response to outside triggers, such as pressure at school or at home. Anxiety can manifest itself as a persistent worry, which often, though not always, occurs after a stressful trigger.

“Stress and anxiety are on the rise among children and teens.”

In parents too, both stress and anxiety are rising. Although childhood stress and parental stress are often looked at separately, it is clear that the two are linked. This link starts early. Stress and anxiety even during pregnancy are associated with an increase in childhood stress. Parental stress is linked to behaviour problems in children, which in turn lead to greater family stress. Children are highly sensitive to parental style, mood, and even nonverbal cues. This means when a parent is stressed, children pick up on that and become stressed themselves.

Parental anxiety can also be passed on to children. For example, recent research found that mothers who were victims of trauma were anxious and less responsive to their children’s needs. The children’s anxiety, in turn, led to an increase in maternal anxiety, a phenomenon the study’s authors refer to as a “cross-generational transmission of anxiety”. They conclude that childhood anxiety is “further exacerbated” by heightened maternal anxiety.

“When a parent is stressed, children pick up on that and become stressed themselves.”

During the COVID-19 lockdowns, a survey showed a link between parental stress and child maltreatment. School closures, a lack of childcare, and social restrictions increased stress on parents, in some cases leading to physical or emotional abuse of children, including neglect and the witnessing of domestic violence.

Claudia Calvano of the University of Kiel, author of the survey, believes that it is vital for friends and family to ask parents how they are doing and what stresses they feel. “We often look at either the child or at adults. But in general, the burdens adults experience as parents are not examined. Of course, we need to look at the parent as a critical agent in the context of the child’s mental health, but also as a parent, an adult with certain needs and burdens, as well as with stress related to the parental role.”

Reducing family stress

There are strategies to reduce stress in families that may also help to alleviate anxiety brought on by stressful triggers. “Emotion coaching” can help buffer childhood stress. This involves a caregiver talking through and identifying the child’s emotions. One study showed that parents who themselves faced the greatest stress were least able to use this strategy to reduce the stress on their children. This suggests that if parents are to prevent their children from becoming stressed, they need to be well themselves.

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The benefits of helping children understand emotions

Another strategy that can help support families in combating stress is “cognitive reappraisal”. This involves reframing emotional information or thinking about a situation as either neutral or positive, rather than negative. This can play out as follows: In the heat of a particularly intense moment, parents can focus on the fact that it will soon pass, recognising that children have difficulty controlling their outbursts – that they are not hitting to cause pain, but are themselves distressed. When I focus on comforting my children rather than stressing over yet another manic bedtime, my “stressed face” is less likely to appear. This approach can help parents overcome feelings of stress triggered by problematic childhood behaviour, because they know that such behaviour is not deliberate.

“If caregivers take action to lower their own stress levels, it can have a positive impact on the family.”

There’s no easy fix, but if caregivers take action to lower their own stress levels, it can have a positive impact on the family. It can help to minimise the cycle of stress and anxiety afflicting parents and children.

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