The Impact of Stress on Children and Families

Findings from a new study suggest that parents are "grossly underestimating" the impact that their stress has on their children.

Findings from a new survey released by the American Psychological Association shed light on the long-term impact that chronic stress can have on the physical and emotional health of families.

In the survey—which was conducted online by Harris Interactive—authors unearthed a troublesome trend emerging among families in which parents underestimate how much stress their children experience and the impact their own stress has on their children. Children as young as eight years old report that they experience physical and emotional health consequences often associated with stress, they found.

"America is at a critical crossroads when it comes to stress and our health," said Norman B. Anderson, PhD, APA’s chief executive officer and executive vice president, in a statement. "Year after year nearly three-quarters of Americans say they experience stress at levels that exceed what they define as healthy, putting themselves at risk for developing chronic illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes and depression. Stress is hurting our physical and emotional health and contributing to some of the leading causes of death in this country."

Other findings from the survey are as follows:

  • Both children and adults who are obese or overweight are more likely to report that they feel stress, and overweight or obese children report that their parents were often or always stressed over the past month.
  • Children who are overweight are more likely to report that they worry a lot compared to children of normal weight (31% vs. 14%).
  • Children who are overweight are more likely than those who are normal weight to report that in the past month they have experienced physical and emotional symptoms such as trouble falling asleep (48% vs. 33%), headaches (43% vs. 28%), eating too much or too little (48% vs. 16%) or feeling angry or getting into fights (22% vs. 13%), all symptoms commonly associated with stress.
  • 32% of parents report that their stress levels are extreme, and parents overall say they are living with stress levels that exceed their definition of healthy.
  • While many adults (69%) feel it’s important to manage their stress, few are successful in their efforts (only 32% believe they are doing an excellent or very good job of managing their stress). According to children, these high levels of stress are having an impact on the family.
  • More than two-thirds (69%) of parents of teens and tweens say that their stress has slight or no impact on their children, yet only 14% of children report that their parent’s stress does not bother them.
  • Children who say their parent is always stressed are more likely to report having a great deal of stress themselves than those who say their parents are never stressed (17% vs. 2%).
  • 47% of tweens and 33% of teens say they feel sad; 36% of tweens and 43% of teens say they feel worried; and 25% of tweens and 38% of teens say they feel frustrated when their parents are stressed.

"Even though children know when their parents are stressed and admit that it directly affects them, parents are grossly underestimating the impact that their stress is having on their children," said Katherine C. Nordal, PhD. "It’s critical that parents communicate with their children about how to identify stress triggers and manage stress in healthy ways while they’re young and still developing behavioral patterns."

To read the “2010 Stress in America” report, click here.

How do you address the issue of stress with your parents? Do you speak with both children and their parents about stress triggers and how it can be managed more effectively?