Monday, September 10, 2012

It’s All in the Family: The Impact of Parental Health on Kids

by Alyssa Hasson, MAMFT

Kids are like mirrors… they reflect the emotions of the adults they live with. Take a moment to consider the implications of this statement. If the emotional health of your children is so closely connected to your own, it’s worth evaluating your own emotional health and exactly what you are sending out to your child.

If you were to pause right now and think of three words to describe your emotional state over the past 12 hours, what words would you use? Do your words have happy undertones, like the words joyful, refreshed, relaxed, inspired, and confident? Or have you chosen words like frustrated, anxious, irritated, stressed, and discouraged, which reflect sadness, anger, or fear? Whichever set of words you have chosen, chances are high that your child is experiencing those same things!

Research in neurobiology (the workings of the brain) has revealed that our brains are equipped with mirror neurons. According to Daniel Siegel, author of Parenting from the Inside Out, “Mirror neurons may also link the perception of emotional expressions to the creation of those states inside the observer. In this way, when we perceive another’s emotions, automatically, unconsciously, that state is created in us.” This means that when your children perceive emotion in you, their brains automatically create the same emotion in them. This is great when you’re feeling happy and relaxed. But it’s not so great if you’re in a chronic state of stress or anxiety. Parents who are experiencing chronic or acute stress, like job stress, financial/economic stress, and/or family stress (including situations like a divorce or marital strain, the loss of a loved one, the addition of a new family member, or even the behavioral problems of a child) should be especially mindful that this stress is being picked up by the mirror neurons in their children. It’s important to note, also, that such stress and anxiety is being communicated even if you think you are hiding it.

Stressful situations seem to be a fact of life. While you may not be able to change the situation, you do have the power to change the way you are internalizing it, and thereby the way it is affecting your children. Keep yourself healthy and balanced by practicing self-care. Self-care is an important, and often overlooked, part of parenting. Simply put, it means taking care of yourself. Self-care is different for each person, but generally speaking, it should include meeting your physical needs (like regularly eating healthy meals and getting enough sleep) and managing your emotional needs by doing things that help you release and relax. I like to think of self-care as getting back to who you are, apart from the roles you play and the stresses that claim your time. It can be tempting to put self-care on the back burner, but remember the benefits that come with being balanced and having stress and anxiety under control. Children can only be as healthy as the family that they live in. Your own emotional health is an important piece of the puzzle!