David Code would like us to all calm down. NOW. It is urgent he says, even while understanding that urgency itself is a cause of stress, because it's his theory that all the ills and ailments of today's children -- everything from asthma, diabetes and allergies, to ADHD, autism and learning disorders -- are linked to the stress levels of their parents.
It is a new and explosive way of looking at things, and he lays it out in his new book Kids Pick Up on Everything: How Parental Stress Is Toxic to Kids. He came to his conclusions, he says, because of the paradox he saw all around him -- chidren who had more of everything (their parents' time, money, attention) but were suffering ailments at rates that dwarfed those of previous generations. As he wrote:
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 just as troubled as children with much fewer resources?
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 children's problem had left everyone on edge.
But what, he asks, if the cause and effect are the other way around?
What if that couple was tense even BEFORE the problem, and their tension somehow contributed to the child's symptoms? If the old sayiing 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 spent the past week chatting by email with Code, exchanging questions and answers. Here's an edited version of how it went:
Q. You write: "I want parents to see the urgent medical imperative to reduce their stress now" You also make it clear that this isn't an attempt to "blame" parents. And yet, isn't your message -- CALM DOWN NOW --- the tautological equivalent of screaming at a child that he "needs to learn to control his temper"? I mean how is it possible not to take a message of blame from all this?
A. Parents should not blame themselves because we simply didn't know.
Now that we know that stress is toxic to kids, humans will simply adapt, as we have done many times in the past. For example, parents smoked for centuries before we realized that smoking can cause cancer and harm a child in utero. Mothers drank alcohol or took certain medications during pregnancy because we didn't know of the potential damage to the fetus. And kids played with toys using lead-based paint, or ate vegetables that had been sprayed with DDT, or rode in cars without seat belts, because we didn't realize just how big a hazard these things were.
Now we have discovered that there are limits to how much stress the human body can withstand. Until now, perhaps we thought we could constantly re-set and re-adjust to an increasingly rapid pace and more pressure, with ever-decreasing time to socialize. But new research shows that our minds and bodies cannot simply adjust to an infinite increase in stress without affecting our kids.
This takes some tough choices at first, but the good news is that overwhelmed parents now have official permission to have fun. This relief, and a new, clear strategy to improve their child's health, can transcend blame and fill parents with hope.
Q. Modern parents are determined to do it right -- and give their children the best of everything. Is that, as it turns out, what our children really want? Or need?
For dozens of generations, parenting didn't change that much. But in the past two generations, wow! And it's time to admit that our society made a mistake in parenting strategy. In the past 50 years, humans have come to believe that any unhappiness we feel as adults is due to a lack of love as children. Of course, neglect is (ITAL)indeed a factor in some cases. But today's parents believe that the more attention they give their children, the better they'll turn out, so parents break their backs to provide their kids with perfect, trauma-free childhoods in the hope that these kids will become happier, healthier adults.
Contrary to popular belief, parents now spend more time with their kids than ever before, madly running from museum to concert to story time at the local library in a desperate--and stressed-out--effort to cram as much attention as possible into their time with their children.
But that's not what kids either want or need. Working parents guiltily assume their kids constantly hope for more family time. But when Dr. Ellen Galinsky, President and Co-Founder of the Families and Work Institute, surveyed more than 1,000 children, she was astonished by what they named as their greatest wish: "Kids were more likely to wish that their parents were less tired and less stressed," Dr. Galinsky found.
If parenting were as simple as "more love and communication," we should have seen some dramatic improvement in children's happiness and health by now. Instead, in the last couple generations, we see more moody and demanding children acting-out, or else developing mental or health problems at rates we have never seen before. Recent studies, for instance, found that five times more young people are dealing with anxiety and mental health issues today than during the Great Depression. To explain away this epidemic as simply "better diagnosis of problems that have always existed" is to live in denial.
Q. How bad is the "epidemic" of stuff that ails our kids -- things like ADHD and asthma and autism and anorexia? (And why do they all seem to start with A?)
A. I don't think I'm overstating to say that 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.
Many people believe child ailments are largely genetic and therefore heritable, but studies of nearly 6,000 British children in 2009 and of 3,000 California children in 2008 concluded that parental stress increases the risk of asthma in kids. The study's authors noted that children in highly-stressed families were almost three times more likely to develop asthma than children of non-stressed families -- whether or not their parents have asthma.
Another study of 4,400 children in 2005 showed that offspring of stressed parents are almost twice as likely to develop Type 1 diabetes, and the study's authors added that a family's stressful life events increased the children's diabetes risk by 230 percent. -- whether or not their parents have diabetes.
Q. And this is what lead you to conculude that parental stress leads to kid ailments and not, as you initially suspected, the other way around?
A. The US National Library of Medicine (PubMed), has dozens, perhaps hundreds of studies showing that parental stress is one of the causes of children's disorders, ranging from colic and obesity to allergies, asthma, and sensory disorders. So the "chicken or the egg" debate has been settled on this issue--it simply has not been publicized. Parental stress is a risk factor for child disorders, but of course once a child has a disorder, it also increases parental stress.
One 15-year study at University of Wisconsin, for example, compared the DNA of children at birth with samples from the same children at age 15. They found that children with parents stressed-out by finances or relationship problems had more changes in their DNA then children of calmer parents. Since some of these DNA changes were in children's brains, one could say a parent's stress can re-wire a child's brain and the changes remain into adulthood.
My own lens shifted when I read about an experiment in the 1950s by a psychiatrist named Murray Bowen 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.
A certain pattern emerged. Bowen 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.
Q. Really? We're back to blaming parents for a child's schizophrenia?!
A. Not exactly. The tendency is genetic, but stress can be a trigger. Stress affects the genes of a child. These kinds of alterations in genes are called epigenetic changes. Unlike the better-known changes called mutations, epigenetic changes do not alter the underlying genetic code, but they do affect whether or not a gene has its programmed effect, for good or ill.
In other words, stress is a big factor in determining whether a gene is "switched-on" or off. Many genes in our bodies are never activated. The ideal is to keep as many "bad" genes as possible dormant, while switching-on as many good genes as possible. That switching starts in utero and continues for a lifetime
Q. In utero? We are stressing them out before they are born?
A. Yes. Just like alcohol and nicotine, stress hormones cross the placenta and cause damage to the developing brain cells of the fetus. Many scientific studies conclude that even a mother's stress from normal, everyday hassles during her pregnancy has been linked to behavioral problems in children. These are not necessarily traumatic things, and can incude working with a difficult boss, changing careers or communities, ongoing tension with a parent or friend, even a severe storm.
Q. Okay, okay, so what the heck do we do about this? Give me a handful of specific steps I can take TODAY to start to reverse this?
A. We can't fake "casual" to our kids. We can't pretend our minds are empty, playful, and light-hearted when they are not. The only way we can reduce all the chatter in our heads that our kids are picking up on is to go socialize and have some fun ourselves. Here are some ways.