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Stress can make mothers hostile, insensitive: study

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Are you suffering from stress? You may be an insensitive parent.

According to a new study from the University of Rochester in New York, chronic stress and parenting are a toxic combination. Women struggling with long-term pressures, such as depression or poverty, are more likely to be neglectful, hostile and insensitive mothers, the researchers found.

"Stress gets under your skin," Melissa Sturge-Apple, the lead author of the study and assistant professor of psychology, said on the university's website. "It literally changes the way a mother's body responds to the normal demands of small children and those changes make it much harder to parent positively."

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The researchers studied 153 mothers and their toddlers, ages 17 to 19 months. The mothers' stress levels were measured using a wireless electrocardiograph (ECG) monitor as their children were placed in a mildly distressing situation (left for a few minutes with a stranger). After the mother and child were reunited, both were observed during a playtime session together.

The results showed a mother's stress response can be either "hyperactive" or "hypoactive," neither of which makes for good parenting.

Mothers who had symptoms of depression were found to have higher heart rates, which spiked when their toddlers were upset. Once reunited, their heart rates remained elevated. During the playtime session these mothers tended to be more hostile toward their children, including speaking to them with an angry tone of voice, handling them roughly and making derogatory comments.

By contrast, mothers who struggled with poverty or lived in high-crime neighbourhoods had lower heart rates that rose only slightly when their children were distressed. During playtime, they were more likely to ignore their toddlers.

Surely domestic doyenne Martha Stewart didn't have to worry about poverty. But could her high-pressure career have hurt her parenting skills? According to a new book by her 46-year-old daughter Alexis, titled Whateverland: Learning to Live Here, Ms. Stewart was far from the perfect mom.

"Martha does everything better! You can't win!," the younger Ms. Stewart writes. "If I didn't do something perfectly, I had to do it again. I grew up with a glue gun pointed at my head."

Parents, how do you keep your stress levels in check?

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About the Author

Wency Leung is a general assignment reporter for the Life section. Before joining The Globe in early 2010, she has worked as a reporter in Vancouver, Prague, and Phnom Penh. More

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