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Can your kids 'catch' your stress?

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You may think you're doing a good job of shielding your kids from your anxiety and stress. But research shows that your children are probably picking up on it anyway—and it's affecting them, physically and emotionally, more than you could imagine.

"Parental stress can weaken the development of a child's brain or immune system, increasing the risk of allergies, obesity, or mental disorders," says David Code, author of "Kids Pick Up on Everything." Research shows that kids can "catch" their parents' stress, overloading their systems until they act out or exhibit mental and physical illness, he says. "Stress is highly contagious between parent and child, even if the parent is unaware of his or her own anxiety."

Parenting expert Lori Lite, a mother of three, author, and founder of the "Stress Free Kids" line of books, CDs, and lesson plans, agrees. "I do believe that children feel their parents' stress," she says. "Children that do not know how to manage stress in a healthy manner will see it manifest in other areas like overeating, headaches, even anger."

But how do kids know that something's wrong, even when we keep telling them—and ourselves—that everything is fine? Neuroscientists call it attunement, and it may have to do with our ability to feel empathy. "Attunement is basically a fancy word for what we used to call the mother-infant bond, where parent and child are so attuned to each other that the child can pick up on a parent's stress and absorb it almost by osmosis," explains Code, who calls it "the mind-body connection" in his book. "It's not so much what we say or do to our kids. It's more about the 'vibe' we give off in their presence. We simply cannot fake being calm to our kids."

Many parents aren't even aware of how high their stress levels really are, Code points out. Between the still-weak economy and our increasingly isolated modern lifestyle, "stressed out" has become the new normal. The push to be the perfect parent is also ratcheting up the stress levels—and harming children rather than helping them. "It's not about, 'The more attention I give my kid, the better they'll turn out.' Rather, it's about, "The calmer and more social I am, the better my kid will turn out',' Code says. "It turns out we were so busy killing ourselves to make our kids happy that our stress is now making them unhealthy."

Even parents who know that they're under a lot of stress often fail to notice that their kids' stress levels are high, too. A 2010 study by the American Psychological Association found that one third of age 8 to 17 reported having had headaches within the past month, but only 13 percent of their parents thought the headaches were a result of stress. Forty-four percent of the kids surveyed said that they had trouble sleeping because of stress, but only 13 percent of their parents noticed it. And while 20 percent of the kids in the survey said that they worry "a great deal or a lot," only three percent of their parents rated the kids' stress as "extreme."

Headaches, trouble sleeping, and irritability are common reactions to stress among both adults and children, pediatrician Dr. Michelle L. Bailey, director of education at Duke Integrative Medicine and the author of "Parenting Your Stressed Out Child," said during a seminar at Duke University in June.
"Parents can help by learning to talk about and model stress reduction techniques with their kids," Dr. Bailey said. She suggests that "mindful practices" such as paying attention to one's thoughts and emotions without passing judgment can help.

"A lot of stress is not a reaction to actual danger, but a reaction to our thoughts," she explained. "Being mindful gives children time to deliberately notice their thoughts and choose how to respond, rather than moving automatically into a stressful state."

Lowering your own stress levels can do wonders for your kids as well, Code points out: "The lower our stress response, the fewer verbal cues parents pass on to their children, so kids' stress response stays lower, too."

Lori Lite of "Stress Free Kids" has some simple ideas for lowering stress levels. "Actual relaxation techniques like deep breathing, visualizing, and positive statements can be incorporated throughout your day with very little effort," she suggests. "Explain to your children that you are calming yourself down and remember to use positive statements when you are feeling frustrated. Blowing bubbles is a stress reducer and fun activity enjoyed by all ages. With a little practice, relaxation techniques will become second nature to you and your children."

"Not only is it fun looking for ways to lower stress for your children," she adds, "but parents receive the added benefit of lowering their own stress levels and experiencing more joy."




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