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Friday, November 13, 2009

Relationships: How Your Stress Can Affect Your Spouse and Children

In a New York Times, there was a article called Job Woes Exacting a Heavy Tole on Family Life  by Michael Luo.

The article focused on a particular family and how the father's job loss lead to emotional strains in his marriage as well as stress-induced behavior in his children. According to Mr. Luo, the family was holding up financially, but the children were picking up on the father's stress and anxiety and the tension in the marriage, and this created a lot anxiety for the children. After the father obtained a job, he and his wife began marriage counseling to deal with the fall out of this crisis in their lives and to save their marriage.

As a psychotherapist in NYC, I see many clients who are under emotional strain for a variety of reasons. For many, even if they haven't lost their jobs, they're worried about the possibility of losing their jobs at some point in the near future.

Other clients are under enormous stress and anxiety for other reasons. What I especially liked about the New York Times article is that it highlighted how spouses and children are affected emotionally (and not just financially) by the problems of one or both parents.

Often, clients will tell me that, even though they're feeling anxious or depressed, they think that they're hiding it from their family and it's not affecting them.

What they often don't realize, and what I will discuss with them, is that their spouses and children usually do notice and feel their emotional strain. 

When one or both parents are going through an emotional crisis, the whole family is affected, as stated in the New York Times article. Fortunately, according to Mr. Luo, the family mentioned in the article was able to put their lives back together because the parents recognized that their marriage and children were adversely affected by the father's anxiety.

Over the years, I've observed that many people think that young children don't understand their parents' emotional strain and, as a result, the children are not affected emotionally.

However, while it may be true that young children might not understand the nature of their parents' problems, they often do understand that "something is wrong" and "mommy and daddy aren't happy." Children are a lot more emotionally attuned to their parent's moods than most people think. When their parents are worried, depressed or not getting along, most children worry and often feel emotionally unsafe.

You might think that you're hiding your emotions under a facade that "Everything is all right" or by telling your children that "Nothing is wrong," but they usually know better. And, in fact, by trying to pretend to your children that everything is fine, when they sense that it's not, it becomes even more worrisome for them.

Of course, this doesn't mean that you're going to go to the other extreme and talk to your young children as if they were adults. But it does mean that you can talk to them, at a level that is appropriate for their age, and assure them that you love them and you're going to do everything you can to make sure that they're safe and secure.

It might also mean that, if your emotional strain is not likely to let up any time soon, you will need to find ways to cope with it to manage your stress and assure your own emotional well-being. This might mean that you begin a walking regimen, begin taking a yoga class, learn to meditate and do deep breathing, or any one of a variety of stress management techniques.

The main point is that, when it comes to your spouse's and children's well-being, what you say to them is much less important than what they observe in you. If they observe that you're depressed and anxious about a particular problem and you deny it or try to put up what you think is a good front, they're going to respond to and be affected by your overall emotional demeanor more than your words.

Young children usually don't have the cognitive or verbal capacity to explain to their parents that they feel anxious or depressed about the parents' problems. But parents can see it in other ways: a child's good grades suddenly plummet, a child who is normally well-behaved in school begins talking back to the teacher or fighting with other students, a child who usually sleeps well by himself suddenly becomes too afraid of the dark and wants to sleep with his parents, a child begins to pull out her hair because she is overcome with anxiety (as seen in the New York Times article), siblings who usually get along begin fighting, a 10 year old child might begin wetting the bed, and so on.

When parents are in denial about how their own problems affect their children, they might only consider external factors outside the family: the schoolteacher is not doing a good enough job, the boy next door is a bad influence, maybe someone in the neighborhood is bothering their child, etc.

Denial is a powerful emotional defense and we use it to ward off emotions that are difficult for us to handle. For many parents, it's too hard for them to believe that their own problems are the cause of their children's anxiety.

Often, individuals and couples come to psychotherapy after they come to terms with the fact that their problems are causing stress-induced problems in their children. As they learn to cope with their problems in a better way, often, this restores a sense of emotional equilibrium to the rest of the family.

As I think about this, I'm reminded of the safety advice that flight attendants give to passengers who have children with them on the flight: Put your oxygen mask on yourself first before you put the oxygen mask on your child. Although it might seem counter-intuitive at first, it makes perfect sense when you think about it: If you don't take care of yourself first, you won't be able to take care of your child.

I am a psychotherapist and hypnotherapist in NYC who works with individuals and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my web site:

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me: