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Stress Levels And Their Impact On Children

Updated on August 26, 2013

Lower income families are more prone to higher cortisol levels than higher income families. Higher cortisol levels are directly related to higher stress levels (Roiphe), and are more common among families with a single mother as the sole guardian (Child Psychiatry). The studies done in recent years have shown a direct correlation between stress in parents and children and low income families. Single mothers often face a lot of stress in raising their children on their own, especially when they have a low income.

The stress these mothers face can find itself into their child rearing philosophies by making them stricter on their children. Single mothers might even expect their children to work just as hard at everything as they do while working to support them. The higher stress levels can be seen as a clear indicator of just how hard raising their children is. These stress levels can also cause some harm to the children and their future success by putting enormous pressure to succeed on their children even with the odds stacked against them.

It is not uncommon for single mothers to have trouble raising their children on a lower income. A great example of one such mother is the mother of Russell Baker from the short story, Growing Up. In his autobiography, Russell tells a story from his youth of how his mother pushed him to do better, and, eventually, led him to find he wanted to be a journalist (Baker). These kinds of mothers are exactly the kinds that are behind the increased cortisol levels. Single mothers of a low income family feel the need to push their children to do better than they have, and can be under tremendous stress between raising their children and working to support their family. They expect their kids to put the same kind of effort into their future as they do, and this puts more stress on the children as well.

Single mothers from low income families face a tremendous amount of stress in raising their children. This is clearly shown in the above-average cortisol levels found in single mothers from low income families. The increased cortisol levels show that these mothers face more stress than is normal. The increased stress in the mothers finds itself into their children’s lives through their parent’s involvement. The resulting stress in the child’s life is not intentional, but still very real. The mothers do their best to raise their children right in what they think is the best way. Their way may not always be the best though.

One such mother would be Russell’s mother from Growing up. His mother works very hard to support Russell and his sister. When she sees Russell reading on a Saturday instead of doing something active, she puts it into her own hands to find something for him to do. She calls up a magazine salesman, and works it out so that Russell gets to sell copies of the magazine in his free-time. Russell’s mother does this for him so that he can get a head start on a career. Russell tries his best to sell the magazines, but doesn’t do too well. So, Russell’s mother sends his little sister out with him to show him how it is done. Russell’s mother may be doing her best to raise Russell into a good man, but she does it in a way that challenges Russell. Russell does not have the personality of a salesman. His mother even says that he lacks “gumption” in the short story. This is a good example of how single mothers can push their children because it clearly shows how she has certain expectations for her son, and puts him into a stressful position to try to give him more “gumption” (Baker).

The stress these mothers put their children into can be shown in many different ways that can be mostly harmful to their children. Stress can affect almost any organ in the human body in a harmful way. Too much stress can cause a wide variety of gastrointestinal diseases that are common to the youth already, but the chances are increased drastically the more the stress levels go up. Too much stress can also been shown to lead to heart issues, hair loss, psychological disorders, and chronic skin conditions later in life. The effects that added stress can have on the children can have a very real effect on their health (Stoppler).

The effect on their health is just one example of how stress can interfere with a child’s development. Another very real side effect is the most obvious one, their reaction to stress. If a child is told to take harder classes as a child, or do better in school, then they are given expectations by their parent. The expectations given to them can be useful for the child to develop goal orientation, but also increases the child’s stress levels. The child might not be pulling his hair out at a young age to finish a project, but the expectations set at a young age will follow the child through their life, and the stress will follow them too.

There are some people who think that not all single mothers cause their children such harm later in life through stressful environments, and say that it isn’t the mother’s fault at all. They also argue that single mother families are becoming the norm of this generation, and, as such, should be put under a new view. They argue that there is no clear definition for what a family should be. They think that means that you can not compare certain families to others.

This misconception is, unfortunately, untrue. The 2008 census showed that less than 30% of households in the United States of America are single parent households. This is definitely not a majority of the population, and shows that single parent families are not becoming the norm of today’s society anytime soon (United States). There are also some overwhelming statistics to back up that not only do single mothers cause stress to themselves, but also to their children that leaves long-term marks on them. Single mothers are two times as likely to be of a low income family, than a two parent family (Koball). The children of single mother families have shown a direct correlation with higher stress levels, which is shown through their higher cortisol, levels (Child Psychiatry). The higher stress levels given to these children can show itself in a wide variety of physical and mental ailments that can have serious long term effect on their life (Stoppler). The long term effects of these diseases can present themselves in their lives for as long as the stress continues to be a problem, which may be their whole life.

Single mothers have to work hard to support their children, and still be a part of their lives. They have to keep a steady income and still keep their children in line. The stress they face in doing this is apparent in the higher cortisol levels recorded in a recent study of single parents. The higher cortisol levels mean higher stress levels that can be passed onto the single mother’s children in various ways. They can simply pass it on by just being in the vicinity of their children, setting their children up with high expectations, or expecting them to always be doing something. The stress that these children receive not only affects their work during the time, but also later into life when stress-related diseases start to rear their ugly heads. The diseases can stick with the children for the rest of their lives in some cases, and are almost never pleasant. These children can’t avoid stress when it is so thoroughly built into their home environment, and do not stand a chance. It can be argued that some stress is common and healthy for children to grow into successful adults, but these children from single parent low income families face more than the average amount of stress. These children are almost defenseless against these regrettable side-effects almost from the get go.

The success of these children later in life is completely dependent upon them because of the challenges they face. There are great odds stacked against them, and many challenges for them to face. The challenges they face are not impossible to overcome, though. The children are put at a great disadvantage just because of being raised in a single parent low income family, and it isn’t fair. The children who are able to make a successful future out of these kinds of situations are truly remarkable people, and deserving of recognition.

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Works Cited

Baker, Russell. Growing Up. New York: Condon & Weed, 1982. 9-17. Print

Child Psychiatry & Human Development; Dec2012, Vol. 43 Issue 6, p924-942, 19p, 3 Charts

Koball, Heather, and Alayna Douglas-Hall. "Rate of Children in Low-Income Families Varies

Widely by State." NCCP. NCCP, n.d. Web. 5 Nov 2012. <>.

Roiphe, Katie. "In Defense of Single Motherhood." Ney York Times. 11 2011: n. page. Web. 30

Oct. 2012. <>.

Stoppler, Mellisa, Jay Marks, and Roxanne Dryden-Edwards. "Stress." MedicineNet.

MedicineNet, 2 2011. Web. 5 Nov 2012. <

United States. Census Bureau. “Single Parent Households”. Washington: GPO, 2008. Print

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    • profile image

      Olwen Lo 

      4 years ago

      Thanks for sharing this. I am 14 years old now, and for my whole life I received a lot of pressure from my single mother. After reading I finally understand why my mother is always putting pressure on me.

      I understand that my mum has been through a lot of stress throughout her life. However her stress has impacted me so much that I was secretly seeing the school counselor. What I meant by secretly is that my mother didn't allow me to see the school counselor, because it takes away a lesson time. But that time I really needed help, because I have too many suicidal thoughts. I kept on thinking that "If I die...I longer need to suffer...I no longer need to care for anything... I longer need to live up to the expectations..." And I was also cutting myself. But I am fine now. I no longer suffer pressures from my mum now. She kicked me out and I am now living with my father's new family.

      Ever since I was a child, my mother has big big big expectations on me. She always says. "You cannot be 100% prefect. You need to be 200% prefect or more." But I have dyslexia, so it was very hard for me. No matter how hard I try or how well I done, the only thing I hear from mum is: "I regret giving birth to you. You never got a first places. I know you done well. But if you are really that smart, then get a first place for me to see." I was smart, but I never was the smartest, I was always in the fifth or sixth place.

      When I entered primary, she starts giving a lot and a lot of exercises for me to do and she starts home tutoring me. But I would say it wasn't a home tutoring session for me, I think it was a scolding session. She always says, "If I see this mistake again, you are so dead", "You still don't understand! Are stupid or what?" After 1 year of enduring this, she said she give up on me. However she still expects me to get a first place.

      When she gave up on me, I started studying by myself. And you know what my grade increased. And when I finally got a first place for her to see, she said, "Well done. Getting the first places is your responsibility."

      When I started high school, we discovered my mum has a cancer. Ever since that her stress grew bigger, and she always kept on thinking that everyone is trying to harm her. She was no longer the person I once knew, the loving mother who has many horrible things to say. She started to treat me like a slave. She will started scolding for over many small problems. E.g. not looking into the eyes when talking. And even worst her expectation for me came back. She forced me to study 2 schools at one time, thinking that it will make me smarter. And the homework was so much that I don't even have the time to talk. After a couple of months she started calling me a 'b*tch'.

      Just around half a year ago, she was so fed up with me. She kicked me out of the house. So I am now living with my father and step-mother. Even though my mother has been very tough on me, but I still love her.


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