Stress and parenting: How they affect us

At some point in our lives, we all can experience stress. Stress can affect us emotionally, mentally and physically. Evidence from the literature [1] shows stress can impact the immune system. Notice that you often fall prey to the common cold whenever you feel stressed.

Stress directly reduces the ability of the immune system to ward off common infections such as the common cold and increases one’s susceptibility to the rhinovirus that causes the cold. 

Studies [2] also point out that stress can affect cognitive performance and decision-making, especially when stress becomes chronic. People who are stressed also tend to have poor mental and emotional health, suggesting that stress can affect all aspects of an individual’s life. 

Stress can also be physically debilitating. Long-term stress has been shown to affect sleeping patterns, which in turn can lead to memory problems and cognitive impairment. In addition, long-term stress can lead to inflammation and increases the risk of certain forms of cancer [3]. 

Stress and parenting

Sources of stress

In rodent studies, exposure to chronic stress results in premature aging. This is a cause for concern since the sudden death of cells and early aging can lead to increased mortality risk and the development of long-term conditions. 

Identifying the sources of stress is essential in managing this condition. In people, stress can come from daily stressors.

As pointed out by Susan Albers from the Cleveland Clinic: “Some stressors are daily stressors, things like your to-do list, going to the post office, conflicts with a boss. Other stresses are ongoing, more chronic stressors like financial issues and conflicts with family members. These ongoing issues can have lasting and profound impacts on your mental and physical health.” 

There is some evidence from the literature that stress from daily living or daily hassles tends to result in stress more than significant life event stressors.

However, pressure from major life stressors and daily hassles reduces emotional and psychological well-being. Stressed parents tend to have a less positive outlook on their parenting skills and abilities. They also tend to have less enjoyment and pleasure from their children.

Hence, it is not surprising that they report feelings of low self-efficacy in their parenting role. This means they feel less competent and empowered to carry out their responsibilities as parents and need more confidence in their ability to impact their children positively. 

For some parents, high levels of parental stress contribute to depression and anxiety and other psychological disorders. 

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Stress and parenting

One of the stressors commonly identified by married couples includes parenting. Many young couples enjoy marriage but often complain of the stress of parenting, especially when the little ones begin to arrive. While parenting, for many, may be a joyous journey, some may find this stressful. 

Parental stress level and satisfaction

In a study [3] published in the Frontiers in Psychology journal, parents were asked about their parental stress level and satisfaction. They correlated these with perceived social support, work-home conflict and global satisfaction with life.

Parents were grouped into those with children in preschool and those with older children in high school. A total of 244 participants were recruited for the study. About 49.6% were mothers, while 50.4% were fathers with children aged 2 to 12. 

Following data analysis, results indicated that mothers report higher levels of parental satisfaction and stress than fathers. Predictors of higher parental stress included being female, having homework conflicts and having two children. 

Notably, the study showed that age was an essential predictor of parental stress. Younger parents and those older than 37 reported more parental stress compared with parents who were less than 37 years old but older than younger parents. 

Meanwhile, being male and having no partner were associated with lower parental satisfaction. The results of this study provide additional evidence that parental stress and satisfaction are essential dimensions of the parenting experience.

Traditional roles related to the care of children would help explain the gender gap in reported parental stress. 

A child with chronic conditions contributes to parental stress

A second study [4] published in the Frontiers in Pediatrics journal highlighted how caring for a child with chronic conditions contributes to parental stress. The stress they experienced impacted other aspects of their lives.

For instance, the parents interviewed in the study acknowledged that caring for a child with chronic conditions affects their relationship with their other children.

Many felt guilty and worried they were not spending sufficient time with the other children. At the same time, others experienced threats to their identities. They thought that they were living in a fishbowl with their lives open up to judging from others. 

Many of the parents interviewed also reported losing touch with their friends and other family members due to the time spent caring for their chronically sick children. 

This study clearly shows that parenting and stress impact relationships with other children and their own family members, friends and peers. 

In another literature [5], parental stress has been recognized to have potentially damaging effects on the behaviors and attitudes of parents toward their children. 

Parental stress can come in many forms: 

  • Lack of social support 
  • Financial troubles 
  • Problems with marriage 

Stressors affect parents’ general health and well-being and demand emotional energy and attention. 

Forms of parental stress
Photograph: Iakobchuk/Envato

When parents are stressed, this can lead to the following: 

  • Reduced tolerance and patience toward the children 
  • Reduced attentiveness and parental participation 
  • Use of punitive practices

When children are subjected to the impacts of parental stress, this can disrupt family functioning and affect the children’s ability to function socially. 

What can be done to help ease parental stress? 

  • Increase social support – helping parents access social support, such as going out with friends or attending social support groups in the community, can help lessen parental stress. It has been shown that social support improves parenting satisfaction. 
  • Improve support for mothers – mothers who receive social support from friends or peers who are breastfeeding their infants or have new babies can help improve mother-infant interactions. Mothers receiving sufficient social support are less likely to be restrictive with their infants or use punitive measures with their babies. 
  • Increase contact with significant others and family members – this can improve the relationship quality between infants and parents. This also enhances the parents’ sense of their competence. 
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How do marital problems contribute to parental stress? 

Marriage problems affect not only the parents’ relationship, but they can also affect the ability of a person to be a good parent.

For instance, parents in unhappy marriages can be emotionally detached from their children due to preoccupation with their marriage problems.

This preoccupation can compromise their ability to be emotionally present for their children. In turn, they become less engaged in bringing up their children. 

In addition, parents with marital problems might act permissive or overly lax, which can develop feelings of rejection in children.

Parents with marriage problems tend to exhibit authoritarian parenting styles, which often results in too many restrictions for their children and a lack of freedom for their children to express what they truly feel.

However, the dynamics change when parents divorce. Divorced fathers who exhibit the authoritarian parenting style but are involved in the child’s lives or frequently visit the child result in a better parent-child relationship.

As pointed out in the literature [5], children with close relationships with authoritarian fathers tend to succeed academically and have less internalizing and externalizing behaviors. 

In contrast, having fathers who do not visit their children frequently can lead to a different father-child relationship.

These less involved fathers tend to assume the role of a recreational companion and tend to be more permissive instead of taking the role of a disciplinarian or teacher. 

Take-home message 

Parental stress can affect parents at different stages of their parenting life. However, those who are younger and older parents experience the most stress.

Parents with marital problems are most susceptible to stress and would require support to ensure that they can address these problems and parent their children more fully. 

Several factors have been identified to contribute to stress. The lack of social support, poor mother-father relationship, stress from jobs and other major life events all contribute to parental stress.

Providing parents with the needed support to manage stress could help empower these parents and restore their confidence and self-efficacy. 

Failure to address parental stress can negatively impact the parent-child relationship resulting in children who may develop internalizing and externalizing behaviors.

Some examples of internalizing behaviors include the following: 

  • Not participating socially or being socially withdrawn 
  • Irritability and nervousness
  • Binge eating or eating less than usual
  • Feeling lonely and afraid 
  • Experiencing concentration problems
  • Depression 
  • Feeling unwanted or unloved 

Meanwhile, common externalizing behaviors in children include tantrums, defiance and aggression. Other behaviors, such as theft, destruction of property and substance abuse, appear more frequently during teenage years or adolescence. 

Meanwhile, improving the quality of relationships between divorced parents and their children appears vital in helping children adjust emotionally and socially to their family situation. It has been shown that marriage problems and divorce are major risk factors for parental stress. 

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The information included in this article is for informational purposes only. The purpose of this webpage is to promote broad consumer understanding and knowledge of various health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment and before undertaking a new health care regimen, and never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.