Lower level of Family Stress May Reduce Risk of Schizophrenia in Children


Scientific reseach has shown that children are much more sensitive to stress than adults - and that stress is likely a key factor in mental illness.

Research also suggests that having a positive and low-stress family relationships (sensitive, nurturing & emotionally intelligent) offer a protective effect for the mental health of children that are biologically predisposed to schizophrenia (a fact that is almost impossible to identify beforehand, but is indicated when there is a family history of brain disorders such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, etc.). There is also considerable evidence indicating that stress (especially social stress and anxiety) is a risk factor and may trigger episodes of schizophrenia. For example, emotionally turbulent families and stressful life events have been linked as risk factors for schizophrenia as well as for for relapses or triggers for episodes of schizophrenia. A recent 40 year long study in Finland strongly suggests this association (see following link for details:An Emotionally Healthy Family Social Environment May Reduce Schizophrenia Risk by 86% in High Risk Groups.) The study was published in the February, 2004 issue of the British Journal of Psychiatry a study looked at babies adopted from mothers that had a diagnosis of schizophrenia and stated:

The information suggests the protective effect of being reared in a healthy adoptive family, with the risk for these high-genetic-risk adoptees developing schizophrenia in healthy families at 5.8% compared with 36.8% for those reared in "dysfunctional" families. This lends significant support to the stress and hereditary predisposition model of the cause of schizophrenia, in which environmental stressors have a particularly harmful impact only on individuals with a genetic vulnerability. Source: British Journal of Psychiatry (full study results here)

For additional related information see:

Research suggests risk of developing schizophrenia (for children genetically or biologically predisposed to schizophrenia) may be up to significantly higher in high stress "dysfunctional families" vs. lower stress households. A possible hypothesis for exactly how stress contributes is that it may cause a neurotoxic reaction in the brain (primarily in the hippocampus) that leads to cell damage and death in individuals who are already vulnerable (due to genes or early environmental insult). There is also evidence that social stress causes the brain to increase the production of dopamine (which is believed by researchers to be one of the key factors in schizophrenia).

Other reseach studies have shown that strong, positive relationships between children and their parents have tended to be associated with lower risk of schizophrenia - especially in families where children may have a genetic predisposition for brain disorders like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, etc. (see study).

In other related research, Dr. Delores Malaspina (at Columbia University) recently stated in an interview (Medscape, registration required) that:

" we found that the duration of marriage was protective against the risk for schizophrenia. This goes in the opposite direction of paternal age, but it's an independent factor. Couples that have a very long marriage are less likely to have offspring with schizophrenia. One possibility is that parents who have mental disorders themselves may have shorter marriages. Another possibility is that there is an increased risk of schizophrenia when there is a marital separation." Dr. Malaspina continued "I think three of the interesting factors that have been linked to the risk of schizophrenia are severe stress in a stress-sensitive person who has underlying genes for schizophrenia, traumatic brain injury in those with underlying genes for schizophrenia, and, very importantly, cannabis exposure in early adolescence."

"...Even exposures that interact with genetic susceptibility may act by changing gene expression, such as traumatic brain injury, cannabis, and stress. Maybe we can integrate our understanding of the many exposures tied to schizophrenia and the many genes tied to schizophrenia with the understanding that certain exposures may act by changing gene expression."

More information on: Dysfunctional Families and Spotting Dysfunctional Relationships

More In-depth Related Reading :

Helpful Actions: It may be helpful to attempt to learn about and develop emotional intelligence in the family environment and keep stress at a relatively low level. It may help for parents to learn how to manage stress well, and learn how to lower it for your children, and make special effort to teach children social skills. Read books (see below) on how to parent in ways that increase your children's emotional intelligence and lower their stress levels).

Academic Resources:

On-line Videos: Peter Salovey, Ph.D. , Yale University

"Emotional Intelligence: Is there anything to it?" - presentation by one of the leading researchers in the field on what emotional intelligence is, the research behind it, what tests are showing relating to parental emotional intelligence and how that predicts children's emotional intelligence, and much more. The video is of poor quality (its difficult to view the slides in the presentation), but the audio quality is very good.

Books that we highly recommend for helping parents raise mentally healthy, and resilient children:

  • Parenting From the Inside Out, By Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. and Mary Hartzell, M. Ed. - an excellent general book on parenting that we highly recommend for all families. Drawing upon important new findings in neurobiology and attachment research, they explain how interpersonal relationships directly impact the development of the brain, and offer parents a step-by-step approach to forming a deeper understanding of their own life stories that will help them raise compassionate and resilient children." We highly recommend you read this interview with Daniel Siegel: The neuropsychology of the playground

  • What am I feeling, By Dr. John Gottman. A good book (but very short - only 48 pages and many photos) to teach parents how to help children express and process emotions in a healthy way. These approaches have proven in reasearch to help children lower their social stress levels and encourage social skills. A good book for parents who want to get a quick understanding of how to help children in their emotional needs, for greater resilience and better mental health in the long term.
  • How to Raise An Emotionally Intelligent Child, By Dr. John Gottman - a great book that goes into more depth on how to raise a child that has good emotional processing skills and good social skills, thus lowering social stress that he or she encounters (thus potentially lowering the risk of schizophrenia and other mental health disorders). (Note - if you purchase this book, you probably don't want to purchase the "What am I feeling" book - because this book covers what is in that book, and much more).
  • The Magic Years, By Dr. Selma H. Fraiberg - is an excellent book, written by a professor of psychology at the University of San Francisco Medical School, that covers how parents can moderate the amount of stress and anxiety that a child goes through as they grow from birth through age six. A great "general parenting" book that we think every parent of younger children should read.
  • The Optimistic Child: Proven Program to Safeguard Children from Depression & Build Lifelong Resilience - Dr. Seligman - a well known research psychologist has a mission here which is to teach parents and other concerned adults how to instill in children a sense of optimism and personal mastery. Seligman discounts prevalent theory that children who are encouraged by others to feel good about themselves will do well. Instead, he proposes that self-esteem comes from mastering challenges, overcoming frustration and experiencing individual achievement. In clear, concise prose peppered with anecdotes, dialogues, cartoons and exercises, Seligman offers a concrete plan of action based on techniques of self-evaluation and social interaction. He describes the development of the Penn Depression Prevention Program, in which school kids are taught ways to divest themselves of pessimistic approaches and adopt optimistic ones, and adapts it to home use by parents. Seligman's recent research profoundly demonstrates that children can be taught techniques of optimistic thinking that, in effect, 'depression-proofs' them and help's lower their social stress.
  • Emotionally Intelligent Parenting : How to Raise a Self-Disciplined, Responsible, Socially Skilled Child - by Daniel Goleman et al, This book focuses on translating Goleman's basic principals as outlined in his book "Emotional Intelligence" into specific parenting tactics for solving daily family issues. The book includes exercises for raising the family "humor quotient," becoming aware of feelings, praising and prioritizing, and coaching your child in responsible action. Emotionally Intelligent Parenting is easy to follow, and provides suggestions for parents at all levels of commitment to the concept.
  • Free download - Emotional Intelligence - What is it? Why does it Matter? (pdf for free download).
  • Relaxation & Stress Reduction Workbook
  • The Anxiety & Phobia Workbook

In addition to dysfunctional family relationships, some of the key stress-creating factors in life (and therefore things to avoid, or make efforts to minimize the stress impact on the children) have been judged to include (with "Most Stressful" at the top of the list). If a family has a known history of mental illness, it may be a reasonable idea to seek family therapy or child therapy if one of the top stressors in the list below is experienced by the family:

  • Death of a spouse
  • Divorce
  • Frequent criticism or judgements
  • Marital hostility (fighting or ongoing tension between parents)
  • Marital separation
  • Death of close family member
  • Major personal injury or illness
  • Being fired at work
  • Marital reconciliation
  • Major change in health or behavior of family member
  • Pregnancy
  • New family member through birth, adoption or remarriage
  • Major business readjustments
  • Major change in financial state
  • Death of close friend
  • Change to a different line of work
  • Major increase in the number of arguments with spouse
  • Foreclosure of mortgage/loan
  • Major change in resposibilities at work (promotion, demotion, transfer)
  • In-laws Trouble
  • Outstanding personal achievement
  • Spouse beginning or ceasing work outside the home
  • Major change in living condition (building, remodeling or deterioration of home)
  • Troubles with supervisor, boss, or superiors
  • Major change in working hours or conditions
  • Change in residence
  • Change to a new school
  • Major change in type or amount of recreation
  • Major change in church activities
  • Major change in social activities
  • Major purchase (car, etc.)
  • Major change in sleeping habits
  • Major change in number of family get-togethers

Supporting Research (a sample):

Additional scientific information - Schizophrenia and Stress (via Google Scholar)













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