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Parents with more worries have children who are always sick Add to ...

When Matthew Smith was three years old, he got sick all the time.

His parents chalked it up to his recent enrolment in a Langley, B.C., preschool, where other people's germ-ridden kids were undoubtedly covering him with cooties and coughing in his Play-Doh.

But a new study suggests there might have been something else to blame for Matthew's frequent colds: his parents' stress. A research project by the University of Rochester published last month in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine showed that parents with more worries also had children who were sick more often.

"These findings are novel because they suggest that impairment in parents' mood and behaviour may be an active mechanism in promoting deleterious effects on children's health," the study states.

Many parents shuttle kids from preschool to piano lessons, working long hours to pay for these "necessities."

They hire tutors for their toddlers and pay David Beckham-worthy fees for private soccer lessons, spending an unprecedented amount of time, energy and cash to ensure no childhood opportunity is left behind.

A poll conducted for The Globe and Mail by the Strategic Counsel has found that more than one-third of Canadian parents spend at least six hours a day with their kids, and close to one in five spend more than $900 a year on their child's activities.

But as parents' self-imposed expectations expand at warp speed, there is growing evidence of unexpected side effects -- not just on mom's wine consumption and dad's cholesterol levels -- but on the kids themselves.

Recent high-profile studies have found that children exposed to unqualified praise are less likely to push themselves academically, and that children who are coddled and overprotected are growing up anxious and irresponsible.

The Rochester study, however, is the first to show that how parents treat their children can affect the way their bodies develop biologically, perhaps leaving a lasting impression on the immune system.

The researchers followed 169 families for three years, recording the emotional symptoms of the adult caregivers, along with the body temperatures and reported illnesses of their children. They found that adults' chronic stress appeared to have a direct effect on children's health, particularly on colds and fevers.

Although Peter Wyman, a psychologist and co-author of the stress study, cautioned against overstating the connection -- it's not like dad's mood is giving his daughter a serious illness or causing his son to break out in hives -- his co-author Mary Caserta, a pediatric infectious-disease specialist, said the results were shocking, a valuable lesson to parents who stress themselves out and think the children don't notice.

Today's mommy wars are no longer just between those who work and those who don't, or breastfeeders versus formula advocates. Many modern parents face an even tougher battle in their own minds, warring between the impulse to do it all and the suspicion that it may be more than they can handle.

Matthew Smith's mom, Lisa, is a reformed member of the hyper-parenting movement. A mother of two, with another due in May, Ms. Smith toned down her stress level only after seeing it mirrored in her child's health and behaviour.

She used to follow parenting books like gospel and internalized the cultural trope that an ambitious parent is an effective one.

She tied her son's shoes and dressed him, even when he was old enough to do it himself; and because his mother did everything, Matthew, who is now almost 5, did nothing.

He was sullen and lazy, she said, and by the age of 3 had not bothered to learn to talk.

"I thought doing everything for your children and making them the centre of your universe was doing them a favour," she said. "I quickly realized that it wasn't, because it was burning me out."

At 310 pounds, she began to fear that her weight and her schedule would become a deadly combination, and signed up for a parenting seminar that preached the importance of personal time.

"I had to learn to slow down and say some things don't matter. Not getting the floor done is not going to be a huge thing in the grand scheme," she said. "In the end it meant huge changes in my life."

Kerry Daly, chairman of the department of family relations at the University of Guelph and author of Families and Time: Keeping Pace in a Hurried Culture, is still waiting for the larger "revolution," when parents rein in the pressure they put on themselves. But he's skeptical it will happen.

In his interviews with busy moms and dads, Dr. Daly said, the intensity of people's lives is palpable. Most are tyrannized by their to-do lists.

"There's this preoccupation with cultivating success in kids," he said. "And there's a fairly high level of unhappiness that goes along with the stress of that. The underlying goal is to do more in less time, and that just adds to the malaise."

Kelly Nault, a Vancouver-based parenting coach and the author of When You're About To Go Off The Deep End, Don't Take Your Kids With You, says thousands of moms do it every single day.

"They ignore their own needs and strive to be, to do and to make everything perfect," she writes. "But what isn't so perfect is the feeling of stress, burnout and resentment that comes from trying to be a Mom who does it all."

Ms. Nault had her own "light-bulb moment" a few years ago during a Cheerio-strewn morning. When she was feeling overwhelmed she used tell her kids: "My batteries are low, I need to go recharge."

But one day, as she nagged her boys to get ready for school, the youngest looked at her and said: "You know, I'm starting to think your batteries are just not the rechargeable kind."

"He was seven years old," Ms. Nault recalled. "It was funny, but it really hit me."

Women like her are reluctant to "get off the treadmill" of overparenting, she believes, because of a desire to keep up with the Joneses and the perverse satisfaction that comes with doing it all.

"There's something seductive about being busy," she said. "It's part of how we define that we're a good mother or father."

At the University of Rochester, Drs. Wyman and Caserta plan to expand their research to define the exact roots of parental stress, and how it manifests itself in a biological reaction in their children.

Lisa Smith, though, says she has already addressed the problem in her own life.

Every day she spends an hour at the gym while her kids are at day care, and she has lost 160 pounds while finding her inner balance. Matthew is happy, his personality blossoming since his mother stopped living for him.

But just because she has abandoned the rigours of her previous parenting style doesn't mean she stopped employing its time-management tools.

When asked how she finds a moment for herself, she gives an answer that would make any overachiever proud.

"You schedule it in," she said. "It's like taking the kids to ice skating or gymnastics; you just schedule your time."

Follow on Twitter: @SiriAgrell

 

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