The Negative Effects of Parental Stress on Students
As parents, we forget how much kids absorb. When we are stressed, we may think it ends with us. But as a teacher, I’ve experienced the impact of parental stress on students. It’s shocking when our kids parrot back all the things we thought they didn’t hear.
Case in point: Last year, in a workshop about becoming the non-anxious presence, one mom explained her reason for attending by sharing her 10-year-old son’s recent comeback. When she asked if he was stressed, he exclaimed, “Stress, stress, stress! That’s all you ever say!”
A few things shocked her. First, she didn’t realize how much her son, who seemed to be in his own world, was absorbing. Second, she wondered if he was right: Was she often talking about anxiety because she has quite a lot of it. And third, were there other ways her stress was impacting her kids that she hadn’t considered?
This little encounter speaks to the potential impact of parental stress on students. The thing about anxiety is that it is contagious. More than we realize, our kids absorb our moods and beliefs.
Stress is part of our culture, and it is spreading to our kids. Though there is evidence that we live in peaceful times, adults report baseline stress levels of a 5.1. For teens, that number is 5.8.
What we may not realize is how deep the impact of parental stress is. In an American Psychological Association (APA) study of more than 2,000 children and adults, nearly 70 percent of parents say their own anxiety barely affects their children.
How wrong they are. In the study, 90 percent of kids say they know when their parents are stressed because they see them arguing and complaining, or because their parents won’t spend time with them.
This manifests in physical symtoms. Nearly a third of the kids them complained of stress-related headaches or stomachaches.
What does parental stress on students look like?
From this study, we know that our kids sense our stress and connect it will not wanting to spend time with them. They’re right. Unconsciously, stressed parents withdraw from their kids. Psychologists associate the following behaviors with parental stress:
- Less warmth
- Lower levels of responsiveness
- Less affection
- More likely to use discipline that is either harsh or uninvolved
- More likely to use controlling tactics to get their child to obey.
There are many reasons people feel stress, but the one that seems to impact their kids the most is increased academic pressure.
As a culture, we’ve become increasingly obsessed with academic achievement, and our kids feel it. Research suggests something striking and troubling: Even though poor children face many hardships, teenagers in affluent families suffer emotional and moral problems at roughly the same rates. The causes of these troubles clearly differ in rich and poor communities, as do the consequences. Yet affluent children suffer high rates of behavioral problems; delinquency; drug use (including hard drugs); anxiety; and depression.
That’s why it’s not surprising that a for a majority of teens, school and getting into a good college are the top causes of stress.
Gone are the days of good enough. Today’s parents treat children like performance machines, placing academic achievement above other values.
In a 2011 article by Richard Weissbourd, a lecturer at Harvard, Weissbourd observed the behavior that created the college scandal earlier this year. He says that parents, “Press their children to take courses and participate in extracurricular activities in which they have no interest because it will help them get into good colleges, constantly arranging achievement-boosting activities, or pushing them to apply to prestigious colleges where they are unlikely to fit in and thrive. Children not only are stressed but also may feel that their best personal qualities are not valued by others.”
Though parents are well-intentioned, their actions may send the wrong message. By shaping their kids’ lives to get into prestigious schools, the kids take home the message that “I am not good enough.”
In many top-performing schools, students and administrators alike describe the school as a pressure cooker. The pressure is around test scores, college admissions, and AP classes. Some experts believe that this pressure comes from a parent’s desire for their children to either meet or surpass what they have achieved. The problem, according to assistant superintendent Timothy Hayes, is that “there’s not a whole lot of room to surpass the success of the parents.”
Sending a different message
Some of what needs to change is how we message success to our kids. There are lots of ways to help your child succeed in school beyond pushing AP classes. AP classes demand a workload that impacts all of a students’ other classes. Some kids take 5 APs and thrive. But for others who may not be ready for them, we need to ask, “Is this really beneficial?”
We are already seeing an increase in anxiety among teens. At Yale, psychology professor B.J. Casey is the director of its Fundamentals of the Adolescent Brain Lab. She said that roughly one in four teens between the ages of 13 and 17 meet the criteria for having an anxiety disorder.
For students who don’t thrive under stress, pushing them to take harder classes that they can’t manage only complicates things. But if they don’t take these classes, they worry that they aren’t keeping up with their peers.
Instead of this laser focus on perfection, perhaps we should remember this idea by John Medina, “The emotional stability of the home is the single greatest predictor of academic success. If you want your kid to get into Harvard, go home and love your spouse.”
We live in stressful times, and we have to remember that stress is contagious. More than we may realize, our kids sense our anxiety. They connect our moods with our behaviors. Our stress becomes theirs.
The focus on academics shows the other negative effects of parental stress on students. When kids are sent the message that, “I must be perfect at everything,” it translates into anxiety. While every parent wants their children to thrive in life, we must reconsider the many roads to success. If not, no number of APs can save them from themselves.