How a Parent's Anxious Mind Impacts a Child

Perhaps the mind-body connection is much more powerful than we realize. We all know kids pick up on everything, so perhaps a parent's anxious mind affects a child's sensitive body.
08/26/2010 04:43 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Dr. Sherry is a pediatrician at the nation's top-ranked Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, and a professor at U Penn Med School. He works with children who suffer from arthritis and amplified musculoskeletal pain: excruciating pain in their bodies. By the time kids come to him, they have usually undergone multiple tests that have not identified any obvious source of the pain, and multiple medications have failed to provide any relief.

Dr. Sherry has noticed a common pattern in the 1,800 parents of these children. Their marriages tend to be distant, they are anxious and they make great efforts on behalf of their kids, even to the point of exhaustion.

They also tend to make a mountain out of a molehill. They overreact to the slightest symptom in their child's health, often magnifying the symptom until it becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.

Perhaps the mind-body connection is much more powerful than we realize. We all know kids pick up on everything, so perhaps a parent's anxious mind affects a child's sensitive body.

Dr. Sherry jokingly refers to his treatment as a "parent-ectomy." He stops all medications and limits parental contact. The children undergo six hours of exercise each day for three weeks, which not only increases blood flow to their muscles, but also helps them sleep better.

Dr. Sherry remarks, "I see many children suffer due to the stress of covert marital discord. When spouses become distant from each other, they sometimes make their child the center of their lives, which interferes with the natural weaning process essential to healthy development. The best gift you can give your kids is to create a good marriage."

Many of today's children are essentially bearing the burden of misplaced stress from their parents' distant marriages. The problem is, many couples may be living in denial about the state of their relationship. On the surface, things may appear calm between the parents, but kids soak up the tension in the household until their fragile little nervous systems hit overload, and then they act out or develop health problems as a result.

It seems counterintuitive, but one way to raise healthy kids may be for parents to focus on their marriage. At the end of this article I'll give you three tips for doing just that, so take heart!

Intimate relationships are both the best and the hardest things we do in life, and sometimes marriage is highly confronting. It pushes our buttons.

What does it mean to have our buttons pushed? It usually happens in a split second, largely beneath our awareness. Our anxiety or irritability spikes, and this triggers our fight-or-flight mode before we even realize it consciously. But fighting is unpleasant, so our brain may opt for flight-mode, where we can use a task as an excuse to leave the conversation. Fighting is overt, but flight can be easily justified: after all, the dishes do need to be done, right? And the kids do need help with their homework...

We claim we're too busy to spend time with our spouses, but when we move away from our spouse in an "emotional divorce," we never remain alone. We often move our attention to our children, projecting our distress and neediness onto them. As the child psychologist and author Madeline Levine observes, "When a marriage is cold, a child's bed is a warm place to be."

On some level, today's parents have convinced ourselves that pouring our attention onto our child is loving, unselfish, and altruistic. But it could be our avoidance-of-spouse that leads us to embrace that belief. Former New York Times family columnist and author Judith Warner notes that studies have shown the best way to make children happy is for their caregivers to create fulfilled lives for themselves, because a fulfilled parent is less needy.

Instead of breaking our backs to create "the perfect childhood" for our kids by making them the center of our universe, we should focus on creating a good marriage.

The fastest way to become better spouses is to notice our knee-jerk avoidance behaviors. Are we working longer hours, spending more time with our electronic screens, co-sleeping with our kids, or throwing ourselves into parenting? When is the last time we had sex?

If we become aware of our flight-response and work on our marriages, this reduces the level of anxiety we bring into our relationship with our children. Our kids will have fewer symptoms, learn self-reliance, and parents will set a good example for the children to model in their own future relationships. That's win-win for every member of the family.

Here are 3 tips to help you make a difference:

1) Exercise Together With Your Spouse:
My wife and I have tried to do the "date night" thing so many times, and it goes well for a month or so before it fades. But if you make an unbreakable date to maintain your waistline, that can become an unbreakable date for your marriage.

It's easier to discuss tough topics and get emotional when you're side by side on the treadmill or jogging down the street. It's easier to be emotional in motion.

2) Highlight and Lowlight:
When you both get home from work, while changing or preparing dinner, share your highlight and "lowlight" of the day with your spouse. It may sound simple, but it can instantly create a space for being fully present to each other. This sense of shared intimacy helps the rest of the evening unfold more smoothly.

3) Make a Weekly Appointment for Sex:
Once humans have sex with a partner, we instinctively want to have more sex with that partner.
Even if initially you don't "feel" like having sex with your spouse, you may find that, after a couple of times, the desire returns. Hormones such as oxytocin and vasopressin help mates to bond in the sexual act, and this primal bond can smooth the waters of many marriages.

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