“Making the decision to have a child—it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” – Elizabeth Stone
The first time you heard your first baby cry, you probably noticed something dramatic had changed. This was no longer the simple auditory experience of hearing a child cry; it was more like an electrical jolt to your brain. Someone had messed with your wiring, creating a direct conduit between your child’s distress and your own.
Over the course of many sleepless nights, you acclimated to the new wiring. Your tolerance increased, you learned to cope with it more rationally, and to move out of the primitive part of your brain that raised your reaction to high alert.
In the first several years of your child’s life, this probably played out to greater or lesser degrees. The first time your baby got shots, you felt your baby’s pain and shock and alarm to a greater extent than your baby. The same may have been true of the first broken bone, the first wound that required stitches.
The connection changes over time, and certain aspects of it diminish, but it doesn’t go away. The conduit that connected you to your child’s distress remains intact. Even if your kids reach adulthood. No matter how good a therapist you have, or how much work you do on emotional boundaries, you still feel uneasy when your child is distressed. You lose sleep or feel an edge of dissatisfaction.
Even with adult children, researchers are discovering, the pattern of parental stress responses is similar to patterns experienced much earlier in life. One study tracked parents’ daily interactions with adult children over 7 days, tracking the cortisol (stress hormone) levels in parents’ saliva at various points during the day. They found elevated cortisol levels in parents whose children experience any sort of problems. In parents whose adult children had physical or emotional problems—like cancer or anxiety disorders— the researchers noticed a more immediate increase in cortisol levels. And in parents whose adult children had lifestyle behavioral problems—like drug addiction or legal trouble—the increases were present but delayed. This difference suggests that that profound connection we had to our baby’s physical-emotional well-being ticks on, long after there’s much we can do to protect them from harm (Birditt, Kyungmin, Zarit, Fingerman & Loving, 2016).
Other studies found that parents tend to be more upset by conflicts and experience more tension with adolescent or adult children than the children do (Larson & Richards, 1994; Birditt, Miller, Fingerman & Lefkowitz, 2009). And Birditt et al. (2009) found that tension levels do not differ substantially between mothers and fathers, although children tend to report more relationship tension with their mothers.
What’s really suprising are the differences in how parents and children react to tension with each other. On average parents experience of tension with their children tends to increase as adult children get older, while adult children tend to experience less distress over time in terms of their relationships with their parents (Birditt et al., 2009). This might be because middle aged children invest more emotional energy in their own nuclear families, while aging parents become more focused on their children’s lives and less focused on external roles.
Whatever the nuances of the distress parents’ feel regarding their children, it’s clear that the connection is unlikely to break. We may one day be 100, and our children 70, and nonetheless find that the connection between our distress and theirs is as intense as ever. On the bright side, Birditt et al (2016) found that parents who report negative encounters with their children are just as likely—or even more likely—to report positive encounters with their children. Empathy and distress, in this context, may be the price of having intimate, loving connections to our children. In that sense, just as we’d hoped when we first hear our babies cry, the benefit might outweigh the cost.
Birditt, K. S., Kyungmin, K., Zarit, S. H., Fingerman, K. L., & Loving, T. J. (2016). Daily interactions in the parent-adult child tie: Links between children’s problems and parents’ diurnal cortisol rhythms. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 63 January, 208-216.
Birditt, K. S., Miller, L. M., Fingerman, K. L., & Lefkowitz, E. S. (2009). Tensions in the parent and adult child relationship: Links to solidarity and ambivalence. Psychology of Aging 24(2) June, 287-295.
Larson, R. W. & Richards M. H. (1994). Family emotions: Do young adolescents and their parents experience the same states? Journal of Research on Adolescence, 4, 567–583.