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Stressed Out? Your Kids May Be, Too

Parental stress, research shows, is contagious. Here's how to avoid spreading it to your kids.
By Colleen Oakley
WebMD Magazine - Feature

You're a 21st century parent, which means your to-do list is never-ending. Your idea of relaxing might be checking Facebook during your 10-minute wait in the car-pool line every afternoon. But at least the kids are all right. Right?

Maybe not. All that stress you carry around on a daily basis affects them, too. A recent study found that stress is contagious between children and their caregivers. That means a baby as young as 1 mirrors its mother's bodily stress responses, such as increased heart rate. And a study published in Pediatric Obesity found that parental stress is linked to weight gain in young children.

What's a parent to do? You can't exactly tap a magic wand and make stress disappear. Instead, "the best thing to do is learn tools to handle stress," says Kathy Gruver, PhD, author of Conquer Your Stress With Mind/Body Techniques.

More important still is to show those tools to your children, says Friedemann Schaub, MD, PhD, author of The Fear and Anxiety Solution.

"Children are very perceptive. If you can deal with your stress appropriately, they'll realize it's not a sign of a catastrophe -- that stress is something you can deal with."

Think positive. When you find yourself thinking something negative, replace it with a positive. For example, rather than saying, "I hope I'm not getting sick," say, "I am healthy and well." Gruver says, "Shutting out negative thoughts can decrease stress. And you can teach your kids to use positive language around events like tests and tournaments by putting [positive thoughts] on the mirrors in their room or on their notebooks."

Don't wait. Most people know good stress-busting techniques, like eating healthy, exercising, meditating, or taking time-outs. The problem is that they wait until they're stressed to do them. "When your brain is in stress mode, it isn't open to picking up new techniques," Schaub says. "It's like trying to learn to drive in a snowstorm." Practice stress-lowering methods every day -- even when things are easy-breezy. "You'll create a pattern of healthy coping mechanisms, so when things get intense, your mind will gravitate toward those good habits rather than bad ones, like overeating or running away."

Unplug. Recent studies link social media use to higher stress levels. Try a self-imposed technology break. "We limit screen time for children, why not for ourselves?" Schaub asks. Pick a cutoff -- maybe 7:30 every night -- after which you won't check your phone or email. "Many people are surprised how much more relaxed they are when they're unplugged."

Warning Signs of Stress in Kids

A recent survey by the American Psychological Association found that 20% of children have ongoing stress. Is your kid among them? Ask yourself:

1. Does your child have more meltdowns than usual?

2. Do you notice a rise in fatigue, irritability, headaches, and stomachaches?

3. Is your child sleeping poorly or waking up from night terrors?

4. Is your child acting angry?

"All of these coupled with your instinct can be signs of stress overload," says Lori Lite, author of Stress-Free Kids: A Parent's Guide to Helping Build Self-Esteem, Manage Stress, and Reduce Anxiety in Children. "Trust your instinct."

Find more articles, browse back issues, and read the current issue of "WebMD Magazine." 

Reviewed on June 03, 2014

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