I recently attended the annual conference by the American Family Therapy Academy (AFTA), which had an emphasis on family resilience. I have decided to share some information from one of the most poignant and powerful presentations I attended, by Gabor Maté , M.D. Dr. Maté ‘s expertise includes addiction, ADHD, mind-body wellness, adolescent mental health and parenting. While Dr. Mate’s talk focused on the source of addiction from his book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, he addressed the issue of stressed parents from his other bestselling book called, “When the Body Says No, The Hidden Costs of Stress.”
Most parents will say stress comes with the territory and usually fluctuates depending on various circumstances. Nowadays, parents are facing more stressors than ever with the current economic crisis, rampant unemployment, lack of resources and so on. So what happens to families when parents are in a constant state of stress?
The Brain & the Environment
Dr. Maté talks about how the human brain is not fully developed at birth, and so the environment that children are exposed to in the first 3-5 years of life has a huge impact on brain development. As a result, the social and psychological environment that children are in has the capacity to influence a child’s genes. Therefore, it is extremely important for the child to be in an environment where the parent is not highly stressed and is very emotionally present. Otherwise, Maté says children are likely to develop unhealthy behavior patterns (such as ADD, repressed emotions, chronic illness etc.) to cope with this early childhood experience.
While a stressful environment can include extremes, such as abuse, neglect, war or any type of violence, it can also include having financial stress, marital conflict, mental illness etc.
When parents are stressed they are less able to be consistent, attuned and responsive to their child.
This lack of attunement has two potentially harmful outcomes:
1. Increased attachment to peers rather than parents
Dr. Maté notes that it is natural for children to attach when they are young. However, stress can make parents less attuned and present and therefore less available to attach to. So then whom do kids attach to? Their peers. Therefore, in times when kids should be leaning on their parents or caregivers for support or advice they are rather turning to their friends. Anyone with a teenager or who remembers being a teenager can see how this is problematic; one underdeveloped brain guiding another.
2. Poor emotional regulation
The more threatening consequence of lacking emotional attunement is poor emotional regulation, which can lead to trouble with impulse control and decision making. “Emotion regulation refers to a person’s ability to understand and accept his or her emotional experience, to engage in healthy strategies to manage uncomfortable emotions when necessary, and to engage in appropriate behavior (e.g., attend classes, go to work, engage in social relationships) when distressed.” (About.com)
So what are we to do?
First of all, this is not to blame parents; the majority of the time stressors are external and parents do what they can to cope and carry on and we know that individuals and families have many resources to be resilient.
When children are grown up:
We cannot go back and change our childhoods, but we can process and understand how certain behaviors and coping mechanisms came to be. We can learn new strategies and ways of engaging with the world around us that are more effective and are more in line with how we prefer to be.
When we provide parents with the resources to decrease and manage stress, we can then help them to support their children in becoming healthy and productive adults. So many times we are treating children and teens in isolation, medicating the symptoms, or seeing only part of the big picture. So, therapists, mental health professionals, doctors, parents and readers, I invite you to zoom out and take a look at the whole system, the family system.
“The greatest gift you can give your child is your self. This means that part of your work as a parent is to keep growing in self-knowledge and in awareness. We have to be grounded in the present moment to share what is deepest and best in ourselves. This is ongoing work, but it can be furthered by making a time for quiet contemplation in whatever ways feel comfortable to us. We only have right now. Let us use it to its best advantage, for our children’s sake, and for our own.”- Jon Kabat-Zinn