Intergenerational Effects of Parental Stress

Chronic parental stress can damage offspring

Defuse chronic stress to protect the born and unborn

According to a recent review, little doubt exists that parental stress or distress can be transmitted to offspring. Several possible routes of transmission exist. First, offspring can learn poor life skills from their parents, thereby perpetuating harmful ways of dealing with life’s challenges. Second, chronic stress experienced by parents (especially by the mother) can alter the gestational environment and harm developing fetuses. Third, chemicals in breast milk from chronically stressed mothers can harm newborns. Fourth, parental stress can affect sperm and egg cells directly. Fifth, chronic parental stress can alter gene expression without changing the underlying genetic code.

Several million children in the US have entered child protective services to limit parental neglect or abuse. Researchers reviewed five studies to determine if safe, stable, nurturing relationships would moderate the damaging effects of parental mistreatment. The results confirmed the presence of intergenerational continuity of childhood maltreatment. Furthermore, childhood maltreatment in the parental generation predicted maltreatment in the offspring generation, with a moderate effect size. Happily, safe, stable, nurturing relationships in the parental generation reduced the chance of maltreatment in the offspring generation, with a small effect size. Greater adult social resources may result in better parenting and less child neglect. Programs that enhance positive parental social relationships and teach parenting skills may reduce chronic parental stress and lessen childhood mistreatment.

Maternal stress affects fetal neurodevelopment and birth outcomes. Researchers collected data for 27 psychosocial, physical, and lifestyle indicators of maternal stress for 187 pregnant women. Standardized scores for the indicators of maternal prenatal stress formed three groups: HG (healthy group with 125 women): PSYG (psychologically stressed group with 32 women); and PHSG (physically stressed group with 30 women). Members of PHSG characteristically exhibited higher ambulatory blood pressure and higher caloric intake. Members of PYSG characteristically exhibited higher perceived stress, depression; anxiety, and lowest measures of three types of social support (others to talk to, others to spend time with, others to rely on for material support) than HG mothers.

The ratio or male to female births (105:100 in normal populations) declined to 67:100 and 44:100 for women in PSYG and PHSG, respectively. Infants of mothers in PSYG were born 1.5 weeks earlier than those in HG, with 22 percent of PYSG infants born preterm versus 5 percent born preterm in HG. Compared to infants born to HG mothers, those born to PHSG mothers exhibited decreased fetal heart-rate movement coupling (reflecting slower central nervous system development). Infants from PYSG mothers had more birth complications than infants from PHSG mothers. Social support most strongly differentiated the mothers in the three groups. Interventions that increase social support for expectant mothers may reduce parental stress and improve fetal health and birth outcomes.

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