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Interview: David Code on How Parental Stress is Toxic for Kids

posted by Nell Minow

Many thanks to author David Code for answering my questions about his new book,  Kids Pick Up On Everything: How Parental Stress Is Toxic To Kids.

As featured in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, CBS and Fox News, David Code is an Episcopal minister and award-winning author who draws on the latest research in neuroscience and his own study of families in more than twenty countries across five continents.

What inspired you to research and write this book?


Since I grew up with few resources, I always assumed what many others assume: Families with more money and education must be more secure, more relaxed and just plain happier. But when I was ordained as an Episcopal minister in 2003 and served two wealthy parishes near New York City, I was surprised at what I found.

The wealthy families I counseled almost seemed to suffer more. For example, a successful graphic designer had a daughter with ADHD who had been rejected by several private schools she had applied to. An entrepreneur practiced attachment-parenting with her son for years, including “babywearing” the child on her shoulder or back, and sleeping with him. But her son constantly threw tantrums, and his parents later divorced. Several successful company presidents had children who barely finished high school. Even the relatively normal families I visited often had children with allergies, asthma, learning disabilities, ADHD, or mood disorders, and many were on medication.

This made no sense to me. These kids had well-educated, well-intentioned, self-sacrificing parents who were doing what the experts told them to do: shower your kids with love and attention, help them find and pursue their inner passions, never raise your voice, protect your child at school and defend them on the playground, etc. Yet, their children weren’t turning out as expected. Why would kids with loving, dedicated, successful parents and all their advantages end up as troubled as children?  

One clue was that in many of the homes I visited, the stress was palpable and many couples had drifted apart emotionally. As I listened to parents’ kitchen-table confessions, I felt a kind of frenetic, jangly tension that was so thick in the room that one could almost see it. I assumed, like most people would, that these households were tense because their child’s problem had left everyone on edge.

Then, I read something that made me look at these families differently.

A psychiatrist named Murray Bowen had conducted an experiment in the 1950’s at the National Institute of Mental Health, observing how schizophrenic youth interacted with their families. For 18 months or more, several patients lived with their entire families in a ward where Bowen and his staff could observe and record their behaviors 24/7.

How brilliant, I thought: he observed our species the way Jane Goodall observed our chimp cousins in Tanzania!

As Bowen observed and compared the behavior of these families, a certain pattern emerged. He described “a striking emotional distance between the parents in all the families. We have called this the ‘emotional divorce’…. When either parent becomes more invested in the patient than in the other parent, the psychotic process [in their child] becomes intensified.” In other words, the parents didn’t drift apart because they were too busy caring for a schizophrenic child. Rather, the drifting apart of their marriage came first, and it had somehow affected their child’s mental health.

I wasn’t sure what to make of Dr. Bowen’s quirky little experiment, but his concept of the “emotional divorce” forever changed my pastoral counseling to families. For the first time, I noticed my own assumptions and began to question them.

Like most people, I had assumed that a child’s health or behavioral problem makes a family tense, which of course it does. But now I asked myself, “What if that couple was tense even before the problem, and their tension somehow contributed to the child’s symptoms? If the old saying is true that kids pick up on everything, what if there’s some kind of mind-body connection between a parent’s anxious mind and a child’s sensitive body?”

I began to ask doctors, nurses, teachers and therapists about this mind-body connection between parent and child, and they poured out stories of how overwhelmed they feel by today’s seeming epidemic of stressed-out parents and troubled children. As I continued to read more medical studies and interview more experts, my conviction that there is a mind-body connection between a parent’s mind and a child’s body became stronger. It almost seemed as though children become barometers for their parents’ state of mind. Could it be that children are “canaries in the coal mine,” indicating when a family’s levels of stress have become toxic?

The answer is yes. Here is what every parent needs to know:

1) Kids pick up on everything, especially our stress and anxiety;
2) This happens both in the womb and throughout childhood;
3) The mind-body connection is a primal link between every parent and child;
4) This mind-body connection contributes to problems in every family—it’s just a question of degree: from colic and food allergies to asthma and autism;
5) This pattern is already epidemic in America, and it’s getting worse;
6) This is not the mother’s or father’s fault. Today’s parents are more stressed-out because our social support networks are dwindling, and we don’t realize that, as our isolation increases, it drives up our stress levels.

I feel a tremendous sense of urgency in getting my message out to parents, because every day lost is another child born with disorders that could have been reduced or even prevented. Asthma now affects 1 child in 10, as does ADHD. The national prevalence of autism almost doubled from 2002 to 2006, and now it is 1 out of 110 children, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But among military families, the rate is a startling 1 out of every 88 children, and in Silicon Valley the rate is roughly 1 in 77.
I want parents to see the urgent medical imperative to reduce their stress now.

What are the biggest stress factors in American families?

Contrary to popular belief, the biggest stressor is not our schedules. It’s our growing isolation.

For today’s parents, being stressed-out has become The New Normal. Sure, we work harder and longer, but our growing isolation from our extended family, friends, and community is the real silent killer and it is exacting a hidden, and pernicious, cost.

Humans are social animals. Our primate cousins all groom each other because they instinctively know that socializing calms anxiety and maintains the group cohesion and cooperation they need to survive. Our parents and grandparents also knew this; that’s why they were active citizens, good neighbors, loyal friends, and caring relatives.

But nowadays we tend to substitute screen time for socializing, and neglect the “social grooming” that reduces our stress levels, without realizing the price we pay. Recent studies found that five times more young people are dealing with anxiety and mental health issues today than during the Great Depression. Americans are far more isolated than they were only two decades ago. Our increasing isolation has left us more anxious and irritable, eroding our relationships. And now our kids are paying the price for our toxic levels of stress, because kids pick up on everything, as if they were little “barometers” of stress in the household. Many of our children’s health problems are actually a kind of “canary in the coal mine,” indicating that parental stress levels have become toxic. Although stress is not the sole cause of today’s epidemic of childhood ailments, it is one of several causes and a risk factor in numerous childhood disorders—and therefore a toxin that we must begin to clean up right now.

In Kids Pick Up On Everything: How Parental Stress Is Toxic To Kids, I give readers a “doctor’s note,” offering parents permission to relax, have fun and socialize more, so that our children can grow up healthier and happier. He explodes the myth that good parenting is about giving your child more attention, instead presenting scientific evidence that good parenting is about lowering your stress levels. It’s about the “vibe” you give off, regardless of what you do or say, because you can’t fake being relaxed.

The solution can be as simple as exercising with your spouse or organizing Happy Hour at work. Our healthy relationships are the best gift we can give our children, and the rewards of restoring our social bonds to family, friends, colleagues, and community—and thus reducing parental stress—will ripple through America’s families. To raise healthy kids, relax and socialize more!

What are the symptoms of their impact on kids?

It’s ironic: Parents worry about BPA in plastics and chemicals in food, but when it comes to children’s health the real toxin is their parents’ stress, because kids pick up on everything.

Research shows that children can “catch” their parents’ stress just like they catch a virus, soaking up the stress that pervades a household until their developing nervous systems reach “overload.” At that point they are not only more likely to act out and exhibit problems such as Oppositional Defiant Disorder or learning disabilities, but are also at elevated risk for mental illness, allergies, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obesity, asthma and sensory disorders.

Despite everything that research has shown about the mind-body connection, it turns out that we have underestimated its power: not only does the stress parents feel make them more likely to develop hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and disorders of the immune system, but parental stress can also harm their child’s health, according to research from Harvard, Duke, and other universities.

In my new book I explain the research showing how a parent’s mind affects a child’s body much more than we thought. As Dr. Dennis Kinney, director of the Genetics Laboratory at Harvard Medical School, writes, “stress does not need to be either chronic or extremely severe in order to have a significant effect on postnatal development. . . . [S]ignificant and lasting effects have been produced by rather moderate and brief exposures to stress.”

How does technology — earbuds, texting, Facebook, etc. — impact family stress?

Contrary to popular belief, technology is not a cause of family stress. It is a symptom. Screen time is our favorite “flight-response.”

What is our flight-response?

When we hear the phrase, “fight-or-flight,” perhaps we think of two bears fighting, or a herd of gazelles fleeing. But remember that humans are animals too. For example, we all know what our fight-response looks like when we argue, but few of us realize what our flight-response looks like. Our flight-response is avoidance—distancing ourselves emotionally from others. It is the silent killer of relationships, and an invisible source of great stress.

Understanding the flight-response is crucial to you, because the flight-response is the key component of a vicious circle that is rapidly escalating the stress in our lives today. In a nutshell, the vicious circle looks like this:

Our increasing levels of stress make us more edgy and irritable. So, in our daily interactions, our fight-or-flight response is triggered more easily, and more often. Whether we fight more often, or flee more often, the result is the same: we end up increasingly isolated. But, because humans are social animals with herd instincts, when we become more isolated we also feel more uneasy and anxious. Unfortunately, this increased anxiety makes us more edgy and irritable, thus continuing a self-perpetuating circle of escalating stress and isolation.

The above vicious circle explains why our levels of stress today are much higher than previous generations. This is one of the most important concepts in this entire book, so we will return often to this primal, unconscious flight instinct that causes stress in our interactions with others.

As our lifestyles grow faster and more isolated, our increasing anxiety and irritability mean more stress hormones in our bloodstream, so today’s parents spend much more time in flight-mode than before. In the old days, when we spent more time in community, people who argued would make an effort to reconcile because “this is a small town after all.” Today, most people simply default to their flight-response, and avoid people they disagree with. As our flight-response triggers more often, our circle of friends and acquaintances is getting smaller and smaller. And in the past 20 years, we haven’t noticed how isolated and stressed-out we have become.

Many researchers in various other institutes have come to the same conclusion that Americans’ isolation is rapidly increasing as we lead a more transient lifestyle. Between 1985 and 2004, the number of people who said they had no one to confide in has tripled to 25 percent of the population.

We visit our parents less often, drift away from our relatives, move away from our friends, and distance ourselves emotionally from our spouses. We work longer hours with more responsibility and pressure than before, and we spend more time in front of our electronic screens. We have even convinced ourselves that socializing face-to-screen online is just as fulfilling as face-to-face. As a result, studies show that, while social media are on the upswing, civility and real-life social skills are declining rapidly. Americans go on 60 percent fewer picnics today and families eat dinner together 40 percent less often compared with 1965, and a recent survey found that more than two-thirds of parents now allow their children to text during family meals.

When families are under inescapable stress — financial, health-related — how can parents manage it to help their kids cope?

Here are my “Big 3″ Faves:

1) Get Back to “Baseline”
My wife loves yoga. She takes classes, and practices her own routine for 20 minutes before bed and 20 minutes when she gets up in the morning. I love talking with my wife after her yoga sessions, because she is so relaxed, exuberant, and quick to laugh. Any problems she has seem much smaller after she gets back in touch with her body and soul through yoga.

I consider yoga to be my wife’s way of “returning to baseline.” Think of “baseline” in the medical sense, like our baseline heart rate or our baseline levels of stress hormones when we are in a relaxed, cheerful mood. Every time we experience a stressful event, our stress levels rise from their baseline level. Hopefully, they can return to baseline before the next stressor comes along.

We all have ways of retuning to baseline. Some people eat or drink too much, escape into TV, or dump their stress on their families by blaming or criticizing them. Others exercise, call a friend, read, pray, have sex, or take a nap.

The point is, you want to find ways of returning to baseline that benefit you and your loved ones. Things like yoga, meditation, and prayer tend to fill us with peace and hope. Reading can transform your brain from upset, fight-or-flight mode to thoughtful mode, because the act of interpreting those printed symbols on the page forces our brains into thoughtful, intellectual mode, which steals the thunder from our stress-response.

When you find yourself anxious and stressed, remind yourself that this is normal for everyone, everyday, and be grateful that you are aware of your anxiety because that empowers you. Most people stumble through their day lashing out at whichever poor soul happens to trigger their fight-or-flight response. You have the opportunity to recognize your anxiety and get back to baseline before anyone can trip the wire on your fight-or-flight response. That means less grief for both you and your loved ones.

Let’s bring back the old-fashioned Daily Vacation: lunch hour. Leaving your office for an hour every day gives your stress-response a chance to return to baseline. Instead of building stress over eight hours, you’ll start over again after lunch and not get so wound up by quitting time.

2) How to socialize more with your Spouse
Knowledge is power. Penn State University’s Prevention Research Center for the Promotion of Human Development has conducted studies showing that even a brief relationship-strengthening seminar before a baby is born can improve the well-being of both parents and child. These positive effects appear to be long-lasting, and are beneficial to normal families, as well as those considered high-risk.

If we can begin to recognize that blaming our loved ones is actually our fight-or-flight instincts in action, we can take it as a sure sign that we’re anxious about something. When we begin to see our criticism as merely our anxiety talking, it empowers us to pause the action for a moment and ponder whether we’re perceiving our spouses as objectively as we thought.

That shadow of a doubt, that sliver of uncertainty, is fantastic because it derails the auto-pilot of our instinctive reactions. Thinking trumps the fight-or-flight response in your brain. The fight-or-flight response never wonders: it simply reacts in a split second. But if we’re wondering, we’re thinking. If we’re thinking, we’re not governed by our instincts alone. And the more we’re thinking, the more willful control we have over our behavior, to produce a more thoughtful response.

This awareness can be like seeing behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz. Once we understand anxiety as the source of our drama in life, we can have more compassion for others. Whatever they do (as cruel or as dumb as it seems) is the best they can do, given the level of anxiety they are battling. So, we can spend less time trying to fix our loved ones, and more time trying to change ourselves—which is where real empowerment lies.

Marriage is a school for lovers, so contrary to popular belief, it’s not about managing your partner. It’s about managing your anxiety. This insight can help you accept yourself and your spouse as you are, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health. As my mother-in-law was fond of saying, “marriage is not a correctional institution.”

3) Exercise together:
If you make a daily, unbreakable date to maintain your waistline, it becomes an unbreakable date for your marriage as well. My wife and I have tried the “date night” thing so many times and it goes well for a month or so and then fades.

We have found that it’s easier to discuss tough topics and get emotional when we are side by side on the treadmill or jogging down the street. It’s easier to be emotional in motion.

If you have previously tried but failed to maintain a regular exercise program, having your spouse as an exercise partner may help you succeed. It’s much easier to build an exercise habit if you have company while exercising, and you feel compelled to keep your promise to your partner. On many days, the only thing that gets me into my jogging clothes is my wife’s presence. But once we’re out there running together, I am always grateful to her for keeping me honest!

If you simply can’t find the time or energy to exercise, then an evening stroll together can be highly beneficial. It becomes your daily time to “have a marriage,” and even ten minutes of marital maintenance per day can make the difference between a healthy relationship and a marriage starving to death over ten years. Also, you will find that when you are outdoors under a big sky, any problems or stress you feel seem much smaller by comparison.

How can parents demonstrate stress management techniques to their kids?

The solution can be as simple as exercising with your spouse or organizing Happy Hour at work. Our healthy relationships are the best gift we can give our children, and the rewards of restoring our social bonds to family, friends, colleagues, and community—and thus reducing parental stress—will ripple through America’s families. To raise healthy kids, relax and socialize more!



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