Science Says Your Stress Is LITERALLY Changing Your Kids' Genes (For The Worse). Here's What To Do
People always tell new parents that the newborn months are the hardest. They're warned about sleep deprivation, feeding around the clock, and diapers that explode across the room.
But they don’t talk about what comes next.
While parenting kids is full of everyday miracles and memory-making moments, it also includes a significant amount of stress along the way. It requires a lot of juggling and a near-constant battle with trial and error. And just when you think you have it all figured out? They change. Kids are constantly growing, and the more you learn about how to do it “right," the less you feel like you actually know.
When parents are significantly stressed during their child’s first few years of life, some of the child’s genes can be altered.
Plus, parenting is different than it once was. Moms, dads, and kids are constantly on the move, with little time to rest and recharge. And that pressure to be the perfect parent? That only exacerbates the stress parents experience on a daily basis.
That kind of stress can lead to frequent illness, exhaustion, anxiety, and many other health issues for adults. What most people don't know, though, is that it can also trickle down to the kids. Stress is contagious.
In fact, a study in Child Development revealed that when parents are significantly stressed during their child’s first few years of life, some of the child’s genes can even be altered, harming development and leading to negative effects years later. Yikes.
As a child psychotherapist, here are the most important things I recommend doing to keep parental stress in check:
1. Raise the white flag — and ask for help.
No mom or dad is an island. I’m not sure when the trend in parenting shifted from “It takes a village” to “Don’t worry, I got this,” but we are long overdue for a shift back to the village mentality.
Parenting isn’t about doing everything independently while baking the best cookies on the block. There's no room for competition in this gig. Asking for help is a great first step toward finding your own parenting happy place.
Start with one friend or family member. Set up a rotating schedule to trade favors or child care so that you both have time to step back from the daily grind of parenting.
2. Ask yourself two questions before you commit to any activity.
If you spend your days running around chasing your tail, you’re probably not getting much done. Time management is a critical part of parenting. It begins with feedings and sleep schedules and moves into school, classes, sports, and homework. There is always something that needs to get done and somewhere you need to be.
Begin by setting realistic expectations and reasonable limits. You simply can’t drive your child to every activity under the sun, run the PTA, and attend every party that comes your way. Cut back on your own activities, as well as those of your kids. Your kids might want to play two sports every season, but they don’t need to.
Ask yourself these two questions before you commit: "Is this something I really want to do? Do I actually have the time to do this?" Proceed accordingly.
When parents care for themselves and keep their own stress levels in check, the whole family benefits.
3. Take a digital vacation with a "Facebook-free weekend."
I have a love/hate relationship with technology. When my husband can attend my son’s back-to-school night in Los Angeles via FaceTime in Australia — I’m in. You can’t put a price on that.
But so many of us struggle to put technology in its place. The lines between work and home are significantly blurred these days due to advances in technology. We are a generation distracted by the sounds coming from our pockets — and we're paying for it with sleep deprivation, increased stress levels, and fractured family relationships.
We're also surrounded by “perfection” when we live in our digital microcosms. Facebook perfect parenting is all the rage these days, and let’s not even get started on Pinterest-perfect parties. When we peek into the lives of others, we can’t help but try to compare. But we don’t actually see the whole picture, do we?
About a year ago, I decided to silence and hide my phone on the weekends. It sounds ridiculous, I know, but the temptation to check in with the digital world felt strong. I jokingly referred to this practice as “Facebook-free weekends," but it worked.
Walking away from technology from Friday night to Monday morning each week decreases my stress, improves my connections with my family, and leaves me feeling light and free. Saying no to distraction each weekend resets my soul.
Parenting is an incredible journey — but it's characterized by ups and downs. It isn’t always stressful, but it isn’t always easy. When parents choose to care for themselves and keep their own stress levels in check, the whole family benefits.
Go ahead: Give yourself a break today. You deserve it.