Stress as an Obstacle to Relationship

Tanya Kemp

The relationship between parents/caregivers and children is fundamental to all scientific study of child development today. The unique power of this relationship can’t be overstated. Parents and children have a sort of wireless or Bluetooth connection that connects their respective brains. It replaces the umbilical chord after birth and is maintained by touch, shared gaze, voice and most importantly – emotion. From the earliest days, our babies connect to our brain, because their brain is not yet sophisticated enough to regulate their arousal. This connection is scientifically known as the interbrain. As children move through childhood, they stay connected to the interbrain as is necessary given their brain development. 

Through the interbrain we meet our children’s regulation and arousal needs. By meeting their needs, we meet our own needs as well, because the interbrain works both ways. Responding to our children isn’t just a cognitive exercise. Its physiological too….we get frustrated, scared, angry when they do – and we calm ourselves when we calm them. We might not be aware of it, but we actually FEEL what our kids are feeling and this may explain us feeling so ‘triggered’ sometimes when they are having a hard time. It really complicates the idea of us having to stay calm in their chaos!

It does however also explain how moments of true attunement is so meaningful and can’t be replicated elsewhere. Our brains respond with ‘feel good’ neurohormones when we are truly attuned and nothing else in life has quite the same effect. This may be why we find it so easy to forget the bad moments and just love them up moments (or hours ☺) later!

The reality is that we have a higher order brain, designed to help our kids to regulate until such a time that they can do it for themselves. When this system works – it’s nothing short of miraculous. However, as we all know, there are things that interfere with the interbrain’s functioning. Most noticeably for us the different way in which the guiding relationship develops when we don’t initially realize what our autistic children need from us. We unintentionally offer parenting geared to a neurotypical child and learn only late on about sensory processing differences, the more intense regulatory needs of autistic kids and how to adjust to suit their processing differences.

 Another crucial factor in the effectiveness and clarity with which the interbrain can function, is parental stress. Interestingly, parents of autistic children experience significantly higher stress levels, than most other parents. Autistic children also experience extended periods of stress and burnout as part of the autistic experience in a world set up for neurotypical brains. Our interbrain connections are often challenged! So be kind to yourself if you’re NOT doing the best you have ever done at helping with your child’s regulation! 

We may consider just throwing in the towel here. Or we may consider looking after ourselves and our relationships in a more productive way, so we can harness this wonder of nature!

What can we as parents do to support our kids?

We are powerful agents of connection, growth and change for our children. The relationship with our children grows and changes us too. It is a reciprocal process – with both you and your child being equally affected. Knowing how stressed you are and where your levels of arousal are, and knowing the same for your children is crucial to supporting your relationship and the functioning of the interbrain. Begin to see your own ‘failures’ and your child’s challenging behaviours, as ‘signs’ of a nervous system under attack! 

What does your system need to get within a healthy state of arousal? Self-care isn’t self-indulgence. It is a basic care need. It isn’t a luxury afforded to some. It is a unique part of what keeps you healthy, functioning and available to parent. Approach your own needs for regulation with the same care and consideration as you aim to do for your children.

When your arousal and stress needs are taken care of, you are more curious, available and open-minded when it comes to considering the stress and restoration needs of your children. How are you able to reduce stress and encourage restoration after so many demands bombard their systems? 

Are you coming from a place of considering their neurological vulnerabilities, and proactively regulating their nervous systems through sensory avenues, rest, scaffolding and adaptations? Or are you trying to control behaviours? The latter will cause you both to burn out. 


Conversation Starter: Share one way you take care of yourself when you are upset


What old story do you tell about yourself that’s stuck on repeat? (e.g “I’m impatient; I can’t do this or that, I’m not good at this or that; That’s just not me”)

Could you take a moment and write down the more compassionate version?