Interview: David Code on How Parental Stress is Toxic for Kids

Posted on September 20, 2011 at 8:00 am

Many thanks to author David Code for answering my questions about his new book,  Kids Pick Up On Everything: How Parental Stress Is Toxic To Kids.

As featured in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, CBS and Fox News, David Code is an Episcopal minister and award-winning author who draws on the latest research in neuroscience and his own study of families in more than twenty countries across five continents.

What inspired you to research and write this book?

Since I grew up with few resources, I always assumed what many others assume: Families with more money and education must be more secure, more relaxed and just plain happier. But when I was ordained as an Episcopal minister in 2003 and served two wealthy parishes near New York City, I was surprised at what I found.

The wealthy families I counseled almost seemed to suffer more. For example, a successful graphic designer had a daughter with ADHD who had been rejected by several private schools she had applied to. An entrepreneur practiced attachment-parenting with her son for years, including “babywearing” the child on her shoulder or back, and sleeping with him. But her son constantly threw tantrums, and his parents later divorced. Several successful company presidents had children who barely finished high school. Even the relatively normal families I visited often had children with allergies, asthma, learning disabilities, ADHD, or mood disorders, and many were on medication.

This made no sense to me. These kids had well-educated, well-intentioned, self-sacrificing parents who were doing what the experts told them to do: shower your kids with love and attention, help them find and pursue their inner passions, never raise your voice, protect your child at school and defend them on the playground, etc. Yet, their children weren’t turning out as expected. Why would kids with loving, dedicated, successful parents and all their advantages end up as troubled as children?  

One clue was that in many of the homes I visited, the stress was palpable and many couples had drifted apart emotionally. As I listened to parents’ kitchen-table confessions, I felt a kind of frenetic, jangly tension that was so thick in the room that one could almost see it. I assumed, like most people would, that these households were tense because their child’s problem had left everyone on edge.

Then, I read something that made me look at these families differently.

A psychiatrist named Murray Bowen had conducted an experiment in the 1950’s at the National Institute of Mental Health, observing how schizophrenic youth interacted with their families. For 18 months or more, several patients lived with their entire families in a ward where Bowen and his staff could observe and record their behaviors 24/7.

How brilliant, I thought: he observed our species the way Jane Goodall observed our chimp cousins in Tanzania!

As Bowen observed and compared the behavior of these families, a certain pattern emerged. He described “a striking emotional distance between the parents in all the families. We have called this the ’emotional divorce’…. When either parent becomes more invested in the patient than in the other parent, the psychotic process becomes intensified.” In other words, the parents didn’t drift apart because they were too busy caring for a schizophrenic child. Rather, the drifting apart of their marriage came first, and it had somehow affected their child’s mental health.

I wasn’t sure what to make of Dr. Bowen’s quirky little experiment, but his concept of the “emotional divorce” forever changed my pastoral counseling to families. For the first time, I noticed my own assumptions and began to question them.

Like most people, I had assumed that a child’s health or behavioral problem makes a family tense, which of course it does. But now I asked myself, “What if that couple was tense even before the problem, and their tension somehow contributed to the child’s symptoms? If the old saying is true that kids pick up on everything, what if there’s some kind of mind-body connection between a parent’s anxious mind and a child’s sensitive body?”

I began to ask doctors, nurses, teachers and therapists about this mind-body connection between parent and child, and they poured out stories of how overwhelmed they feel by today’s seeming epidemic of stressed-out parents and troubled children. As I continued to read more medical studies and interview more experts, my conviction that there is a mind-body connection between a parent’s mind and a child’s body became stronger. It almost seemed as though children become barometers for their parents’ state of mind. Could it be that children are “canaries in the coal mine,” indicating when a family’s levels of stress have become toxic?

The answer is yes. Here is what every parent needs to know:

1) Kids pick up on everything, especially our stress and anxiety;
2) This happens both in the womb and throughout childhood;
3) The mind-body connection is a primal link between every parent and child;
4) This mind-body connection contributes to problems in every family—it’s just a question of degree: from colic and food allergies to asthma and autism;
5) This pattern is already epidemic in America, and it’s getting worse;
6) This is not the mother’s or father’s fault. Today’s parents are more stressed-out because our social support networks are dwindling, and we don’t realize that, as our isolation increases, it drives up our stress levels.

I feel a tremendous sense of urgency in getting my message out to parents, because every day lost is another child born with disorders that could have been reduced or even prevented. Asthma now affects 1 child in 10, as does ADHD. The national prevalence of autism almost doubled from 2002 to 2006, and now it is 1 out of 110 children, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But among military families, the rate is a startling 1 out of every 88 children, and in Silicon Valley the rate is roughly 1 in 77.
I want parents to see the urgent medical imperative to reduce their stress now.


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