The Cost of Parental Stress
Does the push for hands-on, intensive parenting come at too high a cost?
Posted May 6, 2019
When I got pregnant, everyone told me to relax and rest. They offered to do things for me, like cleaning up the house or carrying my groceries. They opened doors in front of me and gave me their seats on the subway. I heard things like “don’t worry” or “don’t stress about it” on a daily basis, because, well, “stress is bad for the baby” of course. Unfortunately, becoming a parent is a distinctly stressful endeavor, starting from the day you get pregnant. Once you start carrying around that baby bump, you’ll hear advice about what to eat, what not to eat, how to sleep, how not to sleep, and even how you should give birth. When the baby is born, it only gets worse: The baby should sleep in your room, but not in your bed. You should sleep when the baby sleeps, but you should also make sure you’re eating and bathing. If you go back to work, you don’t love your baby; if you don’t go back to work you don’t love yourself. Make sure to entertain the baby every second of every day, but don’t even think about screen time until the baby is at least 2 years old, and even then, if you let them watch even 10 minutes of television, you’re a lazy parent.
Taken as a whole, what all of this advice implies is that you need to be doing everything for your child all the time, while simultaneously making sure you’re a well put-together and fully present parent, who in many cases also has a full-time job. Indeed, the newest parenting trends point to hands-on, intensive parenting as an optimal strategy. When you couple that with the concurrent rise in the number of full-time working moms, you get an equation that doesn’t add up. And what you ultimately end up with is a really, really, really tired and stressed out parent.
Research supports this contention. According to a recent survey of parenting in America by the Pew Research Center, most moms feel rushed a lot of time, particularly working moms, and about 40% of them say they feel rushed all the time. On top of that, these moms are also reporting that they feel like they aren’t spending enough time with their kids, with 6 in 10 saying that balancing work and family is difficult (Parker, Horowitz, & Rohal, 2015). I can relate: I have a 4-year-old and a 1-year-old, I work a full-time job and so does my husband, and it feels like our daily lives, along with the million little choices we have to make every day about our children’s wellbeing is incredibly stressful. I wake up at 5:45am every morning so that I can get showered and dressed, get my kids out the door (one to the nanny and the other to school), drive an hour to work, sprint through my day, only to drive an hour home, feed them, bathe them, play with them for 15 minutes, and put them to bed. And they are 1 and 4—we’ve only just begun. The decisions we have to make now that my eldest son is in preschool only means more activities and more time. Is he old enough to start music lessons? Sports? Swim classes? Can we afford any of this? If we can’t, or if we don’t have the time to squeeze in just one more activity, are we bad parents?
Research suggests that thoughts like these are really common. Besides feeling the pressure to engage with your kids all the time, many parents are spending more on things like private school and after-school activities to make sure their children have every opportunity to succeed (Schneider, Hastings, & LaBriola, 2018). Unfortunately, only wealthy parents can afford to do this, and there is evidence that as wealthy families invest more and more in their children’s enrichment, the education gap between children of high and low-income families widens (Schneider, Hastings, & LaBriola, 2018). However, despite the fact that only middle to high-income families can afford multiple sources of enrichment, there is evidence that parents across economic groups all think that they should be engaging their kids in multiple activities, and endorse the idea that child-centered, time-intensive, hands-on parenting is best, even though not everyone has the means to provide it (Ishizuka, 2018).
Although enrichment has clear benefits, the stress that goes along with engaging your child in enriching activities every second of every day carries significant costs for all parents. Stress leads to various negative health outcomes in the short term, including stomach pain, headaches, and muscle aches. Further, stress has long-term consequences like high blood pressure and heart disease and mental health issues like anxiety and depression. Further, having anxious or depressed parents can have serious consequences for children, beginning in pregnancy. Researchers have suggested that changes in a pregnant mother’s mood might change the physiology of the prenatal environment, and affect the biology of the developing fetus (Kaplan, Evans, & Monk, 2008). In fact, there is evidence that maternal stress during pregnancy can affect the physiology of the growing fetus in a number of ways (Beijers, Buitelaar, & de Weerth, 2014). For example, mothers who are anxious while pregnant are more likely than mothers who aren’t anxious to have infants who later develop emotional problems (O'Connor, Heron, Golding, Beveridge, & Glover, 2002; Van den Bergh & Marcoen, 2004).
Negative effects of parental stress and anxiety continue after the baby is born, with visible effects in the first two years of life. For example, in my own research, my colleagues and I found that babies of anxious moms have difficulty looking away from negative facial expressions, directing their attention to negative information in the environment from a very early age (Morales et al., 2017). Further, children of parents who have anxiety are at increased risk of developing anxiety themselves, and anxious parents have been found to be less engaged, and more withdrawn during interactions with their children when compared to non-anxious parents (Woodruff-Borden, Morrow, Bourland, & Cambron, 2002).
Besides the negative effects’ of parents’ anxiety, the negative effects of an overly controlling parenting style have also been shown to have negative child outcomes. For example, children who have controlling parents generally report having higher levels of anxiety and depression themselves (Schiffrin et al. 2014). This might be particularly prominent in children of wealthy families: One study reported that levels of anxiety and stress were higher in suburban, higher income high school students than urban low-income students, and so were subsequent levels of alcohol and drug use (Luthar & D'Avanzo, 1999).
The take-home message is that while lots of attention from parents and a myriad of activities to choose from can be great for kids in a number of ways, having a stressed-out parent isn’t good for anyone. So if too many activities and too much involvement lead to a stressful lifestyle, it might be time to slow down, and if the stress feels overwhelming, it’s important to find help. Besides the handful of studies I’ve cited here, there is an abundance of research suggesting that parental stress and over-involvement can be damaging for both the parent’s long-term health and for the development of the child. So maybe all of those people who said things like “don’t worry” or “don’t stress about it” were on to something, and a little bit of rest and relaxation might be just what parents need, for both themselves and for their kids.
Beijers, R., Buitelaar, J. K., & de Weerth, C. (2014). Mechanisms underlying the effects of prenatal psychosocial stress on child outcomes: beyond the HPA axis. European child & adolescent psychiatry, 23(10), 943-956.
Ishizuka, P. (2018). Social class, gender, and contemporary parenting standards in the United States: Evidence from a national survey experiment. Social Forces.
Kaplan, L. A., Evans, L., & Monk, C. (2008). Effects of mothers' prenatal psychiatric status and postnatal caregiving on infant biobehavioral regulation: can prenatal programming be modified?. Early human development, 84(4), 249-256.
Luthar, S. S., & D'Avanzo, K. (1999). Contextual factors in substance use: A study of suburban and inner-city adolescents. Development and Psychopathology, 11(4), 845-867.
Morales, S., Brown, K. M., Taber-Thomas, LoBue, V., Buss, K. A., & Pérez-Edgar, K. E. (2017). Maternal anxiety predicts attentional bias towards threat in infancy. Emotion, 17, 874-883.
O'Connor, T. G., Heron, J., Golding, J., Beveridge, M., & Glover, V. (2002). Maternal antenatal anxiety and children's behavioural/emotional problems at 4 years: Report from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 180(6), 502-508.
Parker, K., Horowitz, J. M., & Rohal, M. (2015). Raising kids and running a household: How working parents share the load. Pew Research Center.
Schneider, D., Hastings, O. P., & LaBriola, J. (2018). Income inequality and class divides in parental investments. American Sociological Review, 83(3), 475-507.
Schiffrin, H. H., Liss, M., Miles-McLean, H., Geary, K. A., Erchull, M. J., & Tashner, T. (2014). Helping or hovering? The effects of helicopter parenting on college students’ well-being. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 23(3), 548-557.
Van den Bergh, B. R., & Marcoen, A. (2004). High antenatal maternal anxiety is related to ADHD symptoms, externalizing problems, and anxiety in 8‐and 9‐year‐olds. Child development, 75(4), 1085-1097.
Woodruff-Borden, J., Morrow, C., Bourland, S., & Cambron, S. (2002). The behavior of anxious parents: Examining mechanisms of transmission of anxiety from parent to child. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 31(3), 364-374.