This month parents all over America are busy preparing their children to go back to school, but one task that's probably not on anyone's to-do list is lowering mom and dad's stress level. And yet alleviating stress at home is one of the most important factors for increasing the odds of a child achieving higher grades, strong social skills, and good behavior at school.
Here's why. A parent's frame of mind shapes a child's mind set, which in turn shapes that child's brain. If a parent is stressed and anxious, it's quite likely their child will be stressed and anxious as well. Unhealthy amounts of stress hormones will course through their developing brain, and that can mean learning and behavioral problems. The area that is most vulnerable to stress is the prefrontal cortex or higher brain.  This region generates everything we think of as human intelligence, and provides the top-down regulation for emotions, desires, and impulse control. Stress hormones cause synaptic connections in the prefrontal cortex to atrophy.  This means that a child's brain will struggle with learning and be prone to aggression or escape behaviors. Additionally, stress hormones dampen the immune system, sometimes leading to frequent colds and flu.
Make no mistake, stress is a significant problem for children and teenagers. The American Psychological Association's (APA) study on stress found that one-third of tweens and 43 percent of teens say they feel stressed and worried.  This means their stress response system is turned on more often, secreting these toxic hormones.
Here's a big wake-up call for parents from a study on what stresses kids the most.
- The APA study cited above also found that 86 percent of kids say what stresses them most is how stressed their parents have become.
And here's another wake-up from a study on what kids want most.
A study conducted by the Families and Work Institute found that stress-free parents are actually what kids want most.  In this study, interviewers asked children to make one wish for a change in their parents. Parents were then asked to guess what the children wished, and most parents guessed it was for more quality time. Not so. The majority of children wished for their parents to be free of stress. Kids are very good at detecting subtle cues about a parent's mood, such as their down-turned expression or heavy footsteps.
One child in the study said, "I know when my mom has a bad day because when she picks me up from after school she doesn't smile. She has a really frustrated look on her face."
Another child said, "If our parents were less tired and stressed, I think that the kids would be less tired and stressed."
Every good parent wants their child to be happy. Every good parent wants their child to excel. One of the chief characteristics that leads to a child doing well and being well is their parent's well-being. Kids model their parents and a stressed parent models the polar opposite of well-being.
So here's the key take-home message: A child's ability to tap their full measure of brain power depends on a brain free of stress hormones. And achieving that condition depends largely on their parents learning to transcend stress in their own lives. The research I just cited indicates that most parents have not yet understood the significance of this.
The picture that research paints is something we can change. It's simpler than you might imagine and results can accrue faster than you might think. Click here for a free starter kit that begins the process of making your home more peaceful. It's as important as buying the kids pencils, backpacks, and new school clothes.
Note: Image from www.canstockphoto.com; cartoon figure by permission of J. Keeler.
 R. Sinha, Cumulative Adversity and Smaller Gray Matter Volume in Medial Prefrontal, Anterior Cingulate, and Insula Regions Biological Psychiatry, Volume 72, Issue 1, Pages 57-64, July 1, 2012
 Eduardo Dias-Ferreira, Joￃﾣo C. Sousa, Irene Melo, Pedro Morgado, Ana R. Mesquita, Joￃﾣo J. Cerqueira,1 Rui M. Costa,2,4,* Nuno Sousa1,* Chronic Stress Causes Frontostriatal Reorganization and Affects Decision-Making, Science 31 July 2009: Vol. 325. no. 5940, pp. 621 - 625
 APA Stress Survey: Children are More Stressed Than Parents Realize by Public Affairs Staff, American Psychological Association, 2010
 Jeanna Bryner, "Kids to Parents: Leave the Stress at Work," Associated Press (January 23, 2007).