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How Parental Stress Affects The Child’s Biology



Children of stressed parents are, unsurprisingly, more likely to be stressed themselves; this is true for various reasons:

1) It is now being hypothesized by experts in the field that severe stress that mothers experience before they even conceive their baby can alter their eggs in such a way that their infant is passed genetic information that makes him/her more prone to the adverse effects of stress in later life (however, so far the evidence for this only comes from the study of rats – to what extent we can extrapolate from these rat studies is yet to be determined).

2) If a stressed mother is holding her baby or is being observed by it this stress is communicated and transmitted to the infant (infants are highly attuned to their mothers’ emotional states). In effect, the infant absorbs the mother’s stress and anxiety into its own body.

This results in measurable physiological changes taking place within the infant’s body including raised heart rate and an increase in the body’s production of the stress hormone known as cortisol.

The mother’s stress is communicated to the infant, even in the prelingual stage, via factors that include:

– the mother’s vocal tone

– the mother’s facial expressions

– the mother’s physical tension

3) Young children learn how to react to stress by observing their primary caregivers; if these primary caregivers handle stress poorly, then the child, too, is at risk of developing similar difficulties

4) If a child frequently experiences parental conflict, this, too, puts him/her at risk of developing anxiety problems and difficulties with handling stress.

Indeed, research has revealed that even when the child is asleep the sound of parental arguing/conflict is picked up by his/her unconscious and therefore has damaging effects.

5) Depressed / frequently angry mothers may not properly teach their children to ‘self-soothe’ and regulate their emotions effectively, leaving the child highly vulnerable to the development of anxiety-related conditions as s/he grows up


Children who grow up exposed to, and ‘infected’ by, parental anxiety/stress are not only at high risk of developing emotional/psychological problems but also of developing physical/biological problems; these include :

– headaches

– stomach aches

– fatigue

– metabolic syndrome

– over-eating (‘comfort eating’)

– obesity


David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE)


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