Most of us recognize that growing up in a stressful home can cause us stress as children. It seems logical that we learn how to deal with stress by watching how our parents cope. Even the best parents have to face stress in their lives. How they overcome their own struggles and the wisdom they impart combine to give us the foundation to grow into adulthood. In contrast, if a child’s home life is violent or unstable, the child must navigate through an emotional mine field, and learns coping techniques that may or may not help them deal with stress as adults.
In the past few years, scientists have begun to look at childhood stress in a new light. It appears that the old question of nature vs. nurture applies to our stress levels much like it does to our innate intelligence or personality traits. Some stress we pick up from our environment and some could be in our genes.
Writing in the New York Times, professor Inna Gaisler-Salomon describes how the stress a woman feels during, and even before, pregnancy seems to pass in part to her children. Of course researchers question whether or not high stress levels simply create bad parenting. But the question remains of why stress related problems can go on for generations. Gaisler-Salomon cites the psychological struggles among the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors as one example, as well as victims of conflicts around the world.
There may, in fact, be a physiological reason stress gets passed along. Genetic researchers have discovered a gene which contains what could be called a stress molecule, tied to the levels of stress we experience. In addition, we appear to inherit how many receptors we have in our brain for the neurotransmitter dopamine, which has been linked to mood and how we respond to stress.
What difference does this make?
When we are well informed about our family medical history, it helps to take steps to protect our health. We might have more regular checkups, for example, if we know we are predisposed to heart disease or cancer, so we can put our minds at rest.
Knowing we may be predisposed to stress could also give us that extra little push to take steps to protect our emotional health. A brain that we have schooled in meditation and stress relieving techniques will be more able to deal with new stresses as they occur than if we had simply experienced them unprepared.
Knowledge about stress could make us better parents.
Even scientists know that some babies are fussier than others, and some of their research has linked genetic differences to how babies respond to stress. But as Emily Anthes reports in Scientific American, “genes are not destiny.” If an expectant mom goes through a lot of stress during pregnancy, which might pass along to her baby, studies show that parenting focused on relieving the baby’s stress does exactly what it needs to do.
Even babies born with a lower number of dopamine receptors were able to respond to stress as well as other children after a year of supportive, loving care.
The more effectively we deal with our own stress, the healthier our children will be. When I think of really good parenting, I am always reminded of the father in To Kill a Mockingbird. Even as a man who had lost his wife, he was able to raise his daughter with wisdom and love, and by the example of honor he set in how he lived. The mother in Stephen King’s Carrie, on the other hand, is a portrait of horrible-mom-stress run amok.
Using healthy means to handle stress may give us a happier home, and happier genes to pass along to our children. It’s a double winning combination.
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