November 9, 2010

APA Survey Raises Concern about Health Impact of Stress on Children and Families

Psychologists caution that stress may become a public health crisis

New York — Findings from the American Psychological Association’s (APA) newly released 2010 Stress in America survey raise red flags about the long-term impact that chronic stress could have on our physical and emotional health and the health of our families, psychologists said today.

The survey, which was conducted online by Harris Interactive in August 2010, showed that Americans appear to be caught in a vicious cycle where they manage stress in unhealthy ways, and lack of willpower and time constraints impede their ability to make lifestyle or behavioral changes. This is particularly true for those who believe themselves to be in fair or poor health. There also seems to be a troublesome trend emerging among families in which parents are underestimating how much stress their children experience and the impact their own stress has on their children. At the same time, children as young as eight years old are reporting that they experience physical and emotional health consequences often associated with stress.

"America is at a critical crossroads when it comes to stress and our health," said psychologist Norman B. Anderson, PhD, APA’s chief executive officer and executive vice president. "Year after year nearly three-quarters of Americans say they experience stress at levels that exceed what they define as healthy, putting themselves at risk for developing chronic illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes and depression. Stress is hurting our physical and emotional health and contributing to some of the leading causes of death in this country. People are also saying they have difficulty implementing the changes they know will decrease their stress and improve their health. Yet, our health care system is not adequately addressing this issue or providing the behavioral health treatments that can help Americans. All of us, including the medical community, need to take stress seriously since stress could easily become our next public health crisis."

Stress is Taking a Physical and Emotional Health Toll on Children

Stress in America survey results show that children and adults alike who are obese or overweight are more likely to report that they feel stress, and overweight or obese children report that their parents were often or always stressed over the past month.

Children who are overweight are more likely to report they worry a great deal or a lot compared to children of normal weight (31 percent vs. 14 percent). Overweight children are also significantly more likely than normal-weight children to report the way they look/their weight as something they worry about (36 percent vs. 11 percent). Children who believe they are overweight are more likely to report that their parents are stressed out always or often  than children who believe they are normal weight (39 percent vs. 30 percent).

This year’s data also demonstrate that children who are overweight are more likely to experience the physical health effects associated with stress and manage their stress in unhealthy ways. Children who are overweight are more likely than children who are normal weight to report that in the past month they have experienced physical and emotional symptoms such as trouble falling asleep (48 percent vs. 33 percent), headaches (43 percent vs. 28 percent), eating too much or too little (48 percent vs. 16 percent) or feeling angry or getting into fights (22 percent vs. 13 percent), all symptoms commonly associated with stress. Children who are overweight are also more likely than children who are normal weight to report eating
(27 percent vs. 14 percent) or taking a nap (26 percent vs. 15 percent) to make themselves feel better when they are really worried or stressed about something.

Stress is Hurting American Families

One-third (32 percent) of parents report that their stress levels are extreme (a level of 8 – 10 on a 10-point scale) and parents overall say they are living with stress levels that exceed their definition of healthy (parents report an average stress level of 6.1 on a 10-point scale while the average healthy level of stress reported by parents is a 3.9). While many feel it’s important to manage their stress (69 percent say managing stress is extremely or very important), few are being successful in their efforts (only 32 percent believe they are doing an excellent or very good job of managing their stress). According to children, these high levels of stress are having an impact on the family.

Parents underestimate the impact their stress has on the family as a whole, which could have far deeper health implications then they realize. More than two-thirds (69 percent) of parents of teens and tweens say that their stress has slight or no impact on their children, yet only 14 percent of children report that their parent’s stress does not bother them. In addition, one-third of children (34 percent) say they know their parent is worried or stressed out when they yell.

Children who say their parent is always stressed are more likely to report having a great deal of stress themselves than those who say their parents are never stressed (17 percent vs. 2 percent). Nearly half of tweens (47 percent) and one-third of teens (33 percent) say they feel sad; one third of tweens (36 percent) and 43 percent of teens say they feel worried; and one-quarter (25 percent) of tweens and 38 percent of teens say they feel frustrated when their parents are stressed. More than half of parents say that it takes some or a great amount of effort to get their families to eat healthy foods (56 percent) and to get their families to be physically active (54 percent). At the same time, tweens and teens report that they turn to sedentary behaviors to make themselves feel better when they are really worried or stressed, such as listening to music (36 percent of tweens and 66 percent of teens), playing video games (56 percent of tweens and 41 percent of teens) or watching TV (34 percent of tweens and 30 percent of teens).

"Even though children know when their parents are stressed and admit that it directly affects them, parents are grossly underestimating the impact that their stress is having on their children," says psychologist Katherine C. Nordal, PhD, APA’s executive director for professional practice. "It’s critical that parents communicate with their children about  how to identify stress triggers and manage stress in healthy ways while they’re young and still developing behavioral patterns. If children don’t learn these lessons early on, it could significantly impact their physical health and emotional well-being down the road, especially as they become adults."

Read the full report and download graphics.

Stress in America is part of APA’s Mind/Body Health public education campaign. For additional information on stress and lifestyle and behavior, visit APA's Help Center and read the campaign blog. Join the conversation about stress on Twitter by following @apahelpcenter and #stressAPA. Get your questions answered on November 10, 2010 at 2 p.m. EST for a live chat with psychologists on APA's Facebook page.

Methodology

The 2010 Stress in America Survey was conducted online within the United States by Harris Interactive on behalf of the American Psychological Association between August 3 and 27, 2010, among 1,134 adults aged 18+ who reside in the U.S. including 100 adults who are parents of children aged 8 – 17. In addition to the national sample, an oversample of 937 adults who are parents of children aged 8 – 17 also were interviewed for a total of 1,037 parents. A YouthQuery survey also was conducted online between August 18 and 24, 2010, among 1,136 young people aged 8 – 17. No estimates of theoretical sampling error can be calculated. Read the full methodology.

The American Psychological Association, in Washington, D.C., is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world’s largest association of psychologists. APA’s membership includes more than 150,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants, and students. Through its divisions in 54 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession, and as a means of promoting health, education, and human welfare.

Harris Interactive is one of the world's leading custom market research firms, leveraging research, technology, and business acumen to transform relevant insight into actionable foresight. Known widely for the Harris Poll and for pioneering innovative research methodologies, Harris offers expertise in a wide range of industries including healthcare, technology, public affairs, energy, telecommunications, financial services, insurance, media, retail, restaurant, and consumer package goods. Serving clients in over 215 countries and territories through our North American, European, and Asian offices and a network of independent market research firms, Harris specializes in delivering research solutions that help us — and our clients — stay ahead of what's next. For more information, please visit www.harrisinteractive.com.