Effects of Parent Stress on Child Development

As if parents didn’t have enough to be stressed about, now research is suggesting that parent stress can contribute to concerns with children!

Prior to Birth

Even before a child is born, levels of stress hormones may influence brain development. It makes sense that the adaptive response to high stress levels in an adult is to create a child more suited to survive in the stressful situation, which is the premise of the Predictive Adaptive Response thought to contribute to the potential development of ADHD, anxiety, and increased risk for Autism Spectrum Disorders as well.

In Infancy

Even as an infant, the body and the brain continue to develop. Some studies suggest that the stress exhibited to a young child can actually modify which genes are activated as an infant. This is thought to influence stress responses later in life and has been modeled in an animal model. Although mice are a fairly adequate genetic model, the human genome is significantly more complex, making these effects somewhat incomplete when applied to humans. Regardless, environmental stressors and interactions as a child often do contribute to later characteristics. Consider the early childhood experiences of many children who are diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder and the considerable challenges for these children when they attempt to modify their behavior, even in a predictable and secure home environment.


So what this particular information is suggesting is that children require calm. Behaviorally, I would expand that to suggest that children actually crave predictability (within reason) and boundaries. Boundaries create a non-threatening environment by supporting safety, and creating known, predictable expectations and outcomes. Even within developmental research, children who have a secure base are those most likely to interact more with their environment and feel secure enough to venture away from their parent. Additionally, for a home to have some sense of order and calm, the adults in the environment also have to have a sense of order and calm. While stressors happen, regularly in family environments, the modeling of appropriate coping skills and even a bit of ‘time off’ for parents, may actually support the development of a better family environment and better child development. It is important to note that no one is perfect, and that parents aren’t the cause of ADHD, Autism, or anxiety disorders; however, a potential component of these later diagnoses could be exposure to stress and hormones, and, at least this component, can be controlled.

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