Parental Stress and the Gene Switch

Parents, if you deal with constant stress, you are not the only one struggling. Scientists have now discovered that stress horomones are affecting developing fetuses and young children more than previously thought. We now know that nurture — our family environment — affects nature more than we have ever imagined. Now we are beginning to understand why, and it directly relates to your children’s DNA. Up until recent times, scientists have been searching for specific genes that lead to ADHD or autism. Instead, they have discovered that many diseases arise from one specific mechanism. This mechanism is known as the “Epigenome”, an on-off switch on every gene that decides whether or not that gene will express itself. This finding shows that our genes are constantly being shaped in response to our thoughts, feelings, words, and actions. And studies are now showing that stress horomones are able to switch off some “good” genes and switch on some “bad” ones. Specifically, stress, both in utero and postnatally, has been linked to learning disabilities, allergies, asthma, obesity, ADHD and autism.

Understanding epigenetics is crucial to every parent, because epigenetics affect the development of every child — the higher the stress levels in the parents, the higher the risk the genes will be switched, either in utero or after birth. But there is good news … harmful epigenetics can be stopped, or even reversed. If parents reduce their stress levels during pregnancy or a child’s early years, they can prevent further damage to genes, and in some cases, actually undo the “switching” and heal.

Harvard’s National Scientific Council states:

New Scientific research shows that environmental influences can actually affect whether and how genes are expressed. Thus, the old ideas that genes are ‘set in stone’ or that they alone determine development have been disproven. In fact, scientists have discovered that early experiences can determine how genes are turned on and off and even whether some are expressed at all. Therefore, the experiences children have early in life — and the environments in which they have them — shape their developing brain architecture and strongly affect whether they grow up to be healthy, productive members of society.

Stress horomones enter children two ways. During pregnancy, the mother’s stress horomones pass through the placenta, into the amniotic fluid, eventually into the blood of the fetus which flows through the developing brain. Nature has designed this as a way of marking the child in order to prepare it for a dangerous world. In a threatening world, the child will need to have heightened sensitivities to avoid predators etc. But for most expectant families in the first world, there are no inherent dangers, no predators to escape, no threat of famine, no underlying cause for deep concern. Nevertheless, as nature has been designed to do for thousands of years, when stress horomones come in contact with the epigenetic on-off switch of a gene that normally helps a child process information, say sound for example, and turns it off, the gene will stop producing cells that would help to process sound. The child is then born with extreme sensitivities to sound.

Once a baby is born, a parent’s stress is transferred by attunement and mirror neurons. The child senses the parent’s stress through a highly sophisticated sensory tracking system, designed to be on constant look out for any cause for concern. The child is continuously checking for reassurance that it is safe and it’s next meal will be provided. When stress is present in the parent, the stress is present in the child. When the child creates his or her own stress hormones, they interact with the epigenetic switches in the brain tissue as previously mentioned.

One scientist in particular has blazed the trail for epigenetic research with his study on parenting methods in rat mothers. He is a professor of neuroscience and psychiatry at McGill University in Montreal and has been awarded as the “Most Highly Cited Scientist” in neuroscience. Dr Michael Meaney is somewhat of a rock-star in the field of genetics- the Dalai Lama himself follows his work and has met with him on several occasions, for the same reason that parents should have interest in his work. What Dr. Meaney has discovered has the power to change our children’s lives for the better.

His breakthrough began with the simple observation that calm rat mothers lick and groom their pups more frequently than rat mothers under stress, as first noted by the Berkeley School of Public Health. These calm rat mothers produced offspring that generally learned better, explored their environment more freely, and overall showed less fear. The calm rat pups continued to show this healthy behavior thoughout their entire lifetimes. Their mother’s licking seemed to “flip a switch” in the rat pup’s brains that adjusted their demeanor to be calm for life.

The big shocker came when the pups were cross-fostered, when the calm moms were given a stressed mother’s pups to raise. The effect on the foster pups remained the same: they were calmer, less fearful, less neurotic, and learned better, despite the stress with which they had been born. The licking behavior of the calm mothers had the power to “switch” any rat pup, including the stressed ones, into a calm rat, permanently. These calm rats grew up to be calm mothers, who in turn licked their pups, who in turn became calm mothers, and so on and so forth, for many generations to come. What more could we ask for our children?

The implications of this research show that regardless of our children’s genes or their mental and physical problems, calm, attentive, loving parents can improve their children’s health into their adulthood. Before you start “licking your children”, one must note that licking is simply an “environmental signal”, a way of communicating that the mother is calm. Mother rats that are under stress do not lick, because they are in fight-or-flight mode, alert to potential danger and threats.

The environmental signals that you send are often without your realization. It’s your body-language, tone of voice, and behavior that children are subconsciously monitoring at all times. Levels of stress and anxiety are being consistently monitored because, on a primal level, through these stress signals, they can intuit how safe and secure they are. The key word here is calm. When Ellen Galinsky, president and co-founder of the Families and Work Institute, conducted a study on the changing family, workplace, and community, she found that most children don’t want to spend as much time with their parents as the assume. They just want their parents to be more relaxed when they are together.

If calm, mellow parenting in rat families can produce well-adjusted, curious, eager-to-learn offspring, we have hope that calm parenting can improve the health of our own children, regardless of genetic makeup. Learning to handle stress with relaxation tools and techniques may be one of the most important things you can do for your children’s health. Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction practices are a great place to start, using the breath as an anchor point for calming down after periods of intense activity. Also, Sound Balancing with soft music and soothing instruments can be a powerful way to center and return to peacefulness after periods of stress. Find your zen, that which works best for you, and continuously return to it as often as possible.

There will always be periods of stress for parents, especially living in urban environments. Periodic stress is not the concern. The main goal is to learn simple and effective self- regulating tools that will help to balance the stress with moments of calm. Over time, parents will become more emotionally available for their families while improving the physical and mental health of their children. For support in the journey, check out the programs at and reach out with any questions or concerns.

Happiness is harmony in the home. May all beings be happy!

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