Explained: Impact of parental strains on child's mental health

It is essential to prioritise the well-being of parents

Dr Pooja Gupta Dr Pooja Gupta

PARENTAL stress affects countless families worldwide. In today's fast-paced and demanding world, parents often find themselves overwhelmed by the pressures and responsibilities they face. Juggling work, finances, household chores, and raising children, can create a high-stress environment that takes a toll on parents' emotional and physical well-being. Research has shown that children of stressed parents are more likely to experience mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression.

The negative emotions and strained relationships resulting from parental stress can create an unstable and tense atmosphere at home, affecting the child’s emotional development and psychological resilience.

Emotional contagion: Children are remarkably perceptive and attuned to the emotions of their parents. When parents experience high levels of stress, their emotional state can be easily transmitted to their children. This phenomenon, known as emotional contagion, can have adverse effects on the child's mental health. Constant exposure to parental stress can create an environment of tension and anxiety, which can lead to heightened levels of stress and emotional distress in children.

Modelling behaviour: Parents serve as primary role models for children, and they often imitate their behaviour and coping mechanisms. If children witness their parents struggling to manage stress effectively, they may adopt similar maladaptive strategies. Unhealthy coping mechanisms such as avoidance, aggression, or substance abuse can manifest in children.

Disrupted parent-child relationship: Prolonged parental stress can strain the parent-child relationship. When parents are overwhelmed by stress, they may have less emotional availability and limited energy to engage with their children. This can result in reduced communication, decreased bonding, and lack of emotional support. A disrupted parent-child relationship can contribute to feelings of insecurity, low self-esteem, and increased risk of mental health issues in children.

Impact on cognitive functioning: Parental stress can also impair children's cognitive functioning and academic performance. The toxic effects of chronic stress can interfere with a child's ability to concentrate, learn, and retain information. Additionally, children experiencing parental stress may struggle with problem-solving skills and exhibit difficulties in decision-making.

Long-term health consequences: The impact of parental stress on the child's mental health can extend well into adulthood, with potential long-term health consequences. Research suggests that individuals who experienced childhood stress due to parental distress are more likely to develop chronic health conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, obesity, and immune system dysregulation, later in life.

Rohan’s response

Rohan, seven, came from a caring and supportive family. His mother had conceived him at the age of 28―a full term C-section delivery with no prenatal or postnatal complications, or no history of organicity. Lately, his parents were facing several stressors, including financial difficulties and work pressures. These stressors had affected Rohan’s emotional patterns. His behaviour underwent noticeable changes. He became more irritable and easily frustrated, often exhibiting outbursts of anger or tearfulness over minor issues. He experienced a decline in his motivation and engagement in school activities. His concentration and focus were compromised, resulting in decreased productivity and an overall decline in academic achievement. He often displayed signs of anxiety, such as restlessness and trouble sleeping. He also exhibited clinginess or sought excessive reassurance from his parents.

This emphasised the importance of recognising and addressing the effects of parental stress through intervention and support systems. By implementing appropriate strategies and fostering a nurturing environment, parents and professionals could help children like Rohan navigate the challenges associated with parental stress, promote their emotional resilience, and support their healthy development

Zara’s silence at home

Zara, six, experienced selective mutism, a condition where she consistently refrained from speaking in certain social situations despite her ability to communicate in other settings. Her parents' frequent and intense conflicts at home created a distressing and negative environment, leading to Zara's silent response as a coping mechanism in certain situations.

Her parents were engaged in marital conflict due to her mother's mental illness, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), which her father finds difficult to understand. Zara, being a perceptive and sensitive child, absorbed the negativity and developed an aversion to speaking, particularly outside her comfort zone.

She depicted signs of anxiety, such as avoiding eye contact, withdrawing into herself, and clinging to her parents in public settings. Addressing the underlying problem of parental conflict is crucial for Zara’s emotional well-being and future development.

Recognising the potential consequences of parental stress is crucial for parents, caregivers, and society as a whole. To mitigate these effects, it is essential to prioritise the well-being of parents, provide support networks, and promote healthy coping strategies.

Dr Gupta is clinical psychologist at Madhukar Rainbow Hospital, Delhi.