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Stressed? Your child feels it as much as you

columns Updated: Nov 17, 2012 23:18 IST
Sanchita Sharma

James Bond's Mega Boss 'M', for me, never stood for "Mother" until cyber-outlaw Javier Bardem blamed his mangled mind and dodgy dentistry on her and went on such an Oedipal overkill in Skyfall that even flinty Bond got teary-eyed.

Parents - moms more than dads, though - have been and still are psychotherapy's favourite scapegoats and it's understandable why: They are there when you need them and they are there when you don't. And, of course, if they are not around when you need them, you pretty much have the licence to do stuff that would make Hannibal Lecter cringe and still cop an insanity plea.

This explains why Sigmund Freud's school of mindreading still entices millions to revisit their forgettable early childhood for clues, more imagined than real, to blame for their adult sorrows and failures.

The only way for parents to escape the guilt guillotine is to accept that they cannot be perfect parents. Apparently, the psychological scarring begins the moment you attempt to enforce any behaviour or rule on your toddler - such as flushing the toilet after use, wearing clothes before stepping out, or pretending to like grandma's tasteless curry - so be the parent you are happiest being without guilt. For guilt can make you unhappy and stressed, and parental stress is far more catching than all other little developmental glitches that made Freud rich and famous.

"Stress is highly contagious," writes David Code, author of Kids Pick Up on Everything: How Parental Stress is Toxic to Kids. "Parental stress can weaken the development of a child's brain or immune system, increasing the risk of allergies, obesity, or mental disorders."

It begins in the womb, when a mother's stress and depression during pregnancy triggers the release of large amounts of neurohormones into the blood stream, which alters how the child will react emotionally to stress. These changes make the child more likely to get anxious, cry or run away from problems, which makes them unpopular and a target for bullying at school. Then starts a cycle of chronic stress, which makes them more likely to develop mental health problems in later life, reported the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry this week.

An ongoing study on rats in the US has, for the first time, established a link between parental stress in early childhood and changes in children's DNA, and in doing so, linked our experiences (nurture) with DNA (nature). It found that parental care - mother rats devotedly licking and grooming their pups - activates a gene that makes receptors for stress hormones in the baby's brains, which lower stress hormones in the body. This makes cared for pups well-adjusted, curious, and mellow as compared to neglected pups, who are neurotic, jumpy, and stressed.

In humans too, neglect and maternal depression numbs the stress-hormone receptor in the brain, making people more prone to anxiety, depression and other mental disorders. Past research has linked a mother's emotional upheavals with a toddler's language and learning deficits, just as they have linked unhappy marriages with children's emotional insecurity and an inability to form lasting, adult relationships.

Dads play a role, too. Curiously, dads who are stressed during his kids' infancy don't have much impact, perhaps reflecting how dads become more involved once their kids are older. In another intriguing finding, although mothers' stress affected both daughters and sons equally, dads' stress had more effect on daughters, which underlines earlier findings that girls of emotionally or physically absent fathers enter puberty early and are more likely to have relationship problems.

So, stop being stressed about whether you are a good parent or how sorted your child will grow up to be. Instead, unwind a bit, laugh a bit more and do things you like doing. For, your mood and happiness levels will affect how your child will deal with life for years to come.