Stress Contagion

Keeping one foot in the boat, and the other on the riverbank...

Posted Jan 14, 2019

Picking up on each others' moods
Source: Pathdoc/Shutterstock

In one beautiful recent study that came out recently from Sara Waters and Wendy Mendes, the researchers played in a room with an infant while their mother went to another room and did a task. For some mums, the task that they had to do was mildly stressful, and for others it was a pleasant one. They then brought the mother back into the room and reunited her with her baby. By measuring the levels of physiological stress in the baby, they found that babies responded differently depending on whether their mothers had gone through the stressful experience or the pleasant one—suggesting that babies were ‘picking up’ on their mother’s emotions. This transference of emotions was stronger if mothers were allowed to touch their babies, too

So that’s babies picking up on their mum’s emotions - but what about the other way round - do parents pick up on their babies’ emotions, too? I’m just writing up a paper at the moment in which we looked at this, by putting little microphones and physiological stress monitors on babies and their parents simultaneously, to record how their stress levels co-fluctuate while they’re at home. 

As we’d expected we found that, when the baby’s stress levels showed a spike, then we got a reactive increase in the parent’s levels of physiological stress, too. We also found that, at times when parents responded to an increase in their child’s stress levels with a bigger increase in their own levels of stress, then the child tended to calm down more quickly. This is consistent, we think, with some lovely previous work in this area, by Lynne Murray and others. 

We also looked at times when parents were talking directly to their infant. We found that parents were more likely to talk to their child in response to an increase in the child’s stress levels. But we also found evidence for the same ‘transference’ of emotions between children and their parents: the adults’ own stress levels increased while they were talking to their child, and this led to a decrease in the child’s levels of stress afterwards. It’s almost as if adults and children share the stress by passing it back and forth between them.  

There are a couple of interesting follow-ons to this study. First, it’s all very well to be responsive to our children, but can we be too responsive? Some research has suggested that abusive parents can respond to the sound of children crying with excessive increases in their own levels of physiological stress - even before they have children of their own. This  suggests that, for some people, being overly sensitive can be a problem—you might be more likely to lose your rag. This is in contrast to other types of parent—such as those with depression, for whom research suggests that the problem is that they're not responsive enough to their children. Something about being depressed makes it harder to see things from other people's' point of view. 

And secondly—how does empathy change with experience? I was talking about this idea with a friend of mine who is a teacher, and he felt that his responsiveness to the children in his class was changing as he got older. At the start of his career he might have been too responsive - when a child gets upset then he might over-empathise and not manage to keep calm himself. But that was a few years back. Now, he said, he felt able to be responsive to his children, and empathetic - but only up to a point. This period is probably the stage when he was most effective at helping children calm down. Then, for your last few years of his career, he worried he might become jaded, and incapable of responding much any more. At this stage, I'd say, he'd probably also not be so effective at helping an upset child calm down.

The same might be true for parenting. A new parent might panic when their child is unhappy about something, and overreact. At the other extreme, a parent who, for whatever reason, can’t empathise at all when their children get upset, might also have children who take longer to calm down. The sweet spot might be somewhere in the middle - where you care enough to empathise with your child when they get upset—but you only empathise so far. To use a therapist’s phrase—you have one foot in the boat (with the child), and the other foot on the riverbank.