Does a stressed-out mom give her kids an edge?

Let’s face it — moms are stressed. Many moms trying to keep up with children, home life and work feel that they are on a stressful channel 24/7.

Tie between cortisol and competition
Stressed out mom

Most of us would assume this level of stress is bad for our kids, but a recent study shows that there might be a silver lining to Mom’s level of stress we never expected.

Sometimes moms run on little more than a big cup of caffeine and an extra side of stress. Sure, we know that isn’t doing us any favors, but what is our stress level doing to our kids? A Canadian study suggests that a mother’s stress may actually affect her children in a positive way, by making them more competitive.

Stressed-out squirrels

Various Canadian researchers have spent 22 years studying red squirrels to see how they were affected by changes in available resources such as food. Researchers used audio recordings of the noises squirrels make when they are defending their territory, making the squirrels think that there were more squirrels in the forest than there actually were. Researchers uncovered a connection between the faster growing baby squirrels and higher levels of stress hormones in their mothers during the pregnancies. Red squirrels who were stressed out during pregnancy had babies that grew significantly faster without any extra food — out-competing their peers — reported the study, which was published online in Science Express.

“What that suggests is that they’re first able to predict what sort of environment their offspring will encounter… and they’re preparing them for what their offspring are going to face,“ says Ben Dantzer, lead author of the study he worked on under the supervision of Guelph University biologist Andrew McAdam. At the time, Dantzer was pursuing a Ph.D. at Michigan State University. During times of crowded conditions, only the fastest growing baby squirrels survived.

How did they recognize stress in a squirrel?

How can you tell when a squirrel is stressed? Researchers played the audio recordings of the squirrels, then collected squirrel feces and analyzed them for the stress hormone cortisol. Squirrels who were tricked into thinking they were living in crowded conditions had higher levels of cortisol in their feces. Some pregnant squirrels were fed peanut butter laced with cortisol to artificially boost their levels of the hormone. Researchers noted that their babies grew 41 percent faster than the babies of squirrels that were fed plain peanut butter.

How about humans?

So maybe red squirrels are able to translate increased levels of cortisol into a competitive edge, but what about humans? Joanne J. Wendt, Ph.D. is a licensed, clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in marriage and family therapy. “I work with many stressed moms and their kids,” she says. “I’ve found that these moms tend to have a more difficult time consistently managing their kids’ behavior because they are overwhelmed with so many tasks of being a mom. When kids do not have a consistent schedule of expected behavior and 100 percent predictability of consequences for their behavior, they tend to act out,” Wendt says. “This causes Mom more stress and may increase her likelihood of being impatient and upset with them.”

When Mom experiences a lack of control, cortisol — the stress hormone — levels will increase in both Mom and her kids. “This increase in energy levels in the body may make a child more competitive as a way of relieving this pent-up energy and trying to control his/her environment,” shares Wendt. “On the other hand, a child may become withdrawn and depressed if his/her stressed-out mom cannot meet this child’s emotional needs. I’ve seen this happen both ways in my practice,” she adds.

So is stress good or bad?

Tamara Hill, MS, is a child therapist and writer at PsychCentral/Caregivers who sees both sides of the issue. “Children can both benefit from and experience negative consequences from stress,” she shares. “Experiencing stress motivates us to perform at higher levels, mature faster and utilize our ‘survival mechanisms.’ If stress is appropriate and not ‘toxic,’ children may actually benefit from this strain,” she says. Stress is a necessary tool in our lives to push us to higher levels of performance when needed. “We all need a certain level of stress in our lives,” cautions Hill. “At the same time, we must be careful not to expose youngsters to unduly and constant pressure. Think of what has happened to some of the famous youngsters in the Olympics. Substance abuse, depression and anxiety met them down the road. Too much of anything can be a bad thing! So stress must be balanced with the good parts of life,” she adds.

Bottom line

Stress in small doses pushes us to achieve and bring our best game to the table, even when we aren’t feeling particularly ready for the challenge. But too much stress can backfire, leaving you — and your child — with difficulties moving forward. If you feel that you have too much stress in your life, consider making some changes or talking to a professional about ways to pull back and lessen your stress — and that of your child.

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