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What Dad's Bad Mood Does to the Family

A young boy seats alone in the corner of a room.
Photograph by Getty Images

For many years, I worked with a young boy who struggled to bond with his dad. His parents divorced when he was in kindergarten, and the stress triggered by the divorce was enormous. His mother made the first call to me when lack of sleep, symptoms of anxiety and social isolation became an issue in first grade. This little boy coped with his feelings by hiding out in his room and disconnecting from the world.

It wasn’t, however, the divorce that the boy saw as the problem. It was the stress—in both homes. At Mom’s, he was overwhelmed by the big life changes that seemed to envelop her in stress. She went from staying at home to going back to full-time work with a hefty commute (and a job that she didn’t love). She went from married to alone. She went from living in her dream home to moving in with family. It was a lot.

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At Dad’s, he internalized the anger his dad carried around. Dad felt like the scapegoat, the one who upset the family balance, and he coped with it by lashing out and expressing his anger frequently.

This little boy had no means to cope with these big changes and the stress and anger that surrounded him. He suffered because of it. Nightmares woke him in a panic most nights. His appetite slowly disappeared. He couldn’t focus in school, so his grades dropped. He quit soccer because he was too tired to play. He felt confused, anxious and lonely.

A new study out of Michigan State University, published in Infant and Child Development, confirms what I see in my office over and over again: Stress trickles down and has a negative impact on the emotional and behavioral health of children—even when that stress comes from Dad.

Truly, kids worry more when they think Mom and Dad are struggling without help. Lack of information can be more difficult to cope with than the facts.

Using questionnaires, the study evaluated the parenting-related stress of 730 (mostly low-income) families. The findings determined that when dads are significantly stressed or show depressive symptoms, kids have poorer language skills at age 3. The study also found that a father’s depressive symptoms play a role in a child’s development of social skills later in life and that a mother's mental health had a similar effect as the father's on toddler behavior problems.

What does this really mean? It takes two. “It’s always the mother’s fault” is a saying passed around (somewhat) jokingly when kids act up, but the truth is that the emotional health of both parents can impact the emotional health and cognitive development of children.

Stress happens and many parents struggle with emotional health. I get a lot of questions about how a parent can cope with the stress of parenting while working through anxiety or depression. There’s no easy button when it comes to decreasing parental stress or coping with your own emotional health, but here are 3 steps you can take to lessen the trickle-down effect that stress and negative emotions can have in the home.

1. Talk about it

Many parents tell me that they don’t want to talk about their stress or anxiety with their kids, because they don’t want to burden them or they don’t want their kids to worry. Kids pick up on stress and negative emotions. They know these emotions exist in the home, whether or not you choose to acknowledge it.

Talk about your emotional health in age-appropriate terms. Should you overwhelm small children with adult problems? Absolutely not. But you can talk about what it means to have anxiety, stress or depression. You can talk about how brains function and what you need to do to cope with negative emotions.

When parents label what they’re going through and talk about coping strategies, kids learn how to get through the hard stuff. Truly, kids worry more when they think Mom and Dad are struggling without help. Lack of information can be more difficult to cope with than the facts.

2. Develop family coping strategies

Sometimes a code word or phrase (e.g. “take five”) can be useful when emotions run high. Work with your kids to come up with a system of calming activities and strategies to use when times are tough.

Stress can and does permeate a room and impact how people relate to one another.

I often suggest creating a calming corner with the kids. This might include art supplies, soft music, books, stuffed animals, a cozy place to sit and some Play Doh. You can consider this your stress-free zone. When the kids go there to take five, they have time to calm down without interruption. Make sure to create your own “parent calming corners” too!

3. Try family therapy

You don’t need an official diagnosis to benefit from family therapy. More often than not, there is an “identified patient” in the room when families seek therapy. Once families start talking and working together, however, they see that every person in the room plays a role in how the family functions.

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Stress can and does permeate a room and impact how people relate to one another. Seeking help from a licensed mental health practitioner gives families the opportunities to work through their feelings and emotions together with assistance. This helps reduce blaming and shaming and improve communication and family functioning.

Bottom line: Blaming Mom or Dad isn’t useful. Working together to improve the emotional health of the family benefits the children and the parents.

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