Opinion: parents mean the best for their children and would never consciously intend to cause them stress, but do they do so inadvertently?

The Stressed documentary followed the trajectory of five adult volunteers who felt overwhelmed by their busy lifestyles and wanted to "be in the moment" more rather "doing" all the time. As therapist to one of the volunteers, I found that using the link between daily living patterns and the three emotional regulation systems (i.e. drive, threat and soothing) from Paul Gilbert’s Compassion-Focused Therapy (CFT) was a really powerful way of conceptualising and working with stress.

For some, the insatiable need to succeed (drive system) may come from a painful place in our childhoods (threat system). This can result in us having real difficulty in nurturing ourselves (soothing system), as we may not have experienced a consistent model of soothing from our primary caregiver (usually a parent) as we were growing up.

If a person hasn't been soothed adequately as a child, then it’s very difficult to know how to instinctively self-soothe in adulthood. This can lead to them ignoring stress alerts and not seeking much needed help and social support. Of course, traumatic experiences during a person’s lifetime including adulthood can also have a bearing.

From RTÉ One's Stressed documentary, Dr Samantha Dockeray speaks about the impact of our childhood experiences on our resilience to stress; neuroscientist Ian Robertson on why we need a little bit of adversity as we grow and Dr Mallie Coyne on how parents respond to their own difficult experiences and emotions can influence their children positively

For more on the role of self-compassion in a VUCA (i.e. Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) world, Dr Nelisha Wickremasingue describes the modern world experience of toxic stress as having origins in not feeling good enough which can trigger a threat reaction related to the fear of rejection or abandonment. To counteract this, three self-compassion practices are recommended including self-kindness (having a warm, soft and soothing inner voice); mindfulness (noticing our thoughts and feelings in the present moment without analysing or denying them) and feelings of common humanity (recognising that imperfection and suffering as shared and inevitable human experiences).

This brings me to the early origins of stress and the impact of parents’ early relationship experiences on children’s stress. This was alluded to in my Brainstorm article, which described an initiative by the Galway City Early Years Committee, alongside HSE Health Promotion, Galway Healthy Cities and Galway Parent Network, to share evidence-based messages promoting the child-parent attachment on posters displayed in health facilities in Galway.

A parent’s ability to reflect on their child’s needs even under situations of high stress significantly protects the child from the negative impacts of stress

This drew the attention of the Stressed documentary makers who were looking at how the stress response develops over the course of a person’s lifetime beginning with the early years. This culminated in them filming us sharing our poster messages dispelling common myths around early parenting and a discussion with a Mother and Toddler and Baby group at the Galway ARD Family Resource Centre, which provided wonderful food for thought on their parenting experiences.

On the early origins of stress, one of the posters had the following message on it:

"Holding a baby when they cry helps them to grow into a confident and trusting toddler."

Myth: You should leave babies alone so that they learn to be independent.

Truth: Babies left alone think they have been abandoned so become more clingy and insecure when you are around.

Evidence: Early separation from those we depend can be very frightening for a baby and raise cortisol levels in the baby's brain, which shapes their developing nervous system and determines how stress is interpreted and responded to in the future. Babies who are held and soothed when in distress grow into more confident toddlers who are better able to deal with being away from their parents temporarily, rather than becoming clingy.

The quality of the child-parent attachment bond is the foundation for a child’s emotional regulation

Before delving into this further, it is important to note that most of us parent with the best intentions for our children and would never consciously intend to cause them stress, but do we do so inadvertently? If so, how can we best protect them and grow them into emotionally resilient adults?

In our common humanity, it is important to note that we all struggle as parents and that nobody is looking for the "perfect" parent; all a child needs is what Donald Winnicott called a "good enough parent". But sometimes life can get in the way and a resurgence of our childhood wounds can come to the fore when faced with our children’s significant needs, which can feel really overwhelming at times.

It is within the sacred crucible of the relationship we form with our children that they learn how to manage stress and to trust in another to support them through it. The quality of the child-parent attachment bond is the foundation for a child’s emotional regulation, which will provide them with a psychological immunity to stress and promote emotional wellbeing and future resilience.

From RTÉ One's Stressed, Dr Malie Coyne talks about how Compassion Focussed Therapy or CFT can be useful for stress reduction

Sue Gerhardt talks more about how early stress impacts on the developing brain in her book "Why love matters: How affection shapes a baby’s brain". In it, she speaks about the vulnerability of babies to stress and their dependency on an adult to calm them down and to disperse their cortisol (stress chemical). There is also a need for the parent to acknowledge their baby’s distress and soothe them using the quality of everyday interactions to build a secure connection. 

Parents play a crucial role in helping children to regulate their emotions, which requires a lot of self-control and an ability to regulate our own emotions. As our children’s emotional regulators, our aim is to establish pathways and systems in their brains which will enable them to do this for themselves in the future. Without this type of responsive caregiving, children can have later difficulties in forming and maintaining relationships and in managing adversity and stress.

So are we stressing our children out? Unfortunately transmitting a certain amount of stress is inevitable

Although most parents have good intentions with their children, this is often not enough to develop a secure attachment relationship. Based on 60 years of Attachment Theory, the Circle of Security presents a road map for parents to understand and reframe their children’s needs. This speaks about the power of reflective functioning (the ability of the parent to imagine their own and their child’s mental state) in learning to stand back and choose the most contained responses with children.

A groundbreaking study worthy of mention is the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, which assessed the effects of traumatic childhood experiences on the child’s developing brain and their future physical and emotional health. It found that the more traumatic experiences an adult had experienced as a child, the greater their risk for both physical and mental health problems later in life. For more on how childhood trauma affects health over a lifetime, watch the Ted talk by paediatrician Nadine Burke-Harris or this discussion on her recent book The Deepest Well

However, it is not just a child’s experience of a stressor which leads to an impaired stress response in adulthood, but how this stressor impacts on the parent’s ability to care for their child. Studies have shown that a parent’s ability to reflect on their child’s needs even under situations of high stress significantly protects the child from the negative impacts of stress. Another seminal paper worthy of mention is Selma Fraiberg’s "Ghosts in the Nursery" which linked a parent remembering their childhood pain with less likelihood of re-enacting their past with their children.

So are we stressing our children out? Unfortunately transmitting a certain amount of stress is inevitable, but ruptures in our everyday interactions with children can be repaired with awareness of our childhood wounds and the ability to stand back and make more adaptive choices. These rupture and repair moments actually build a child's capacity for trust in the relationship. It is all about the predominant parenting style where "good enough" is enough.

Rest assured that hope does exist and it is never too late. With awareness and support, every parent can work on the quality of their emotional connection with their child, which will build a psychological immunity to the negative effects of stress. As for nurturing yourself as a parent, gaining emotional support and filling your cup is vital and a good start is to welcome self-compassion into your life.  

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ