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By Dora Watkins, MSW & Brandie Bentley, Ph.D.

Family stress is defined as any stressor that concerns one or more members of the family, or the whole system, at a defined time (Randall & Bodenmann, 2013). When families experience stress, it can reduce their capacity to provide a nurturing environment for their children, which in turn can impact their children’s mental health and development. In the short term, unaddressed family stress can affect a child’s ability to regulate their emotions and behavior (Cohen & Roderick Stark, 2017). It can also impact their ability to form secure attachments with their caregivers (Barker & Berry, 2009). Further, the long-term effects of exposure to chronic stress can result in developmental delays, mental health problems, and even physical health issues across the life course (Center on the Developing Child, 2013).

In today’s world, it is more important than ever to find healthy ways to cope with stress. Whether families are dealing with common everyday challenges like balancing work and family responsibilities or facing more unique stressors like frequent moves or military deployments, it’s natural to feel overwhelmed at times. However, it’s important to remember that these challenges do not have to be faced alone.

Providers play a critical role in offering family-centered support and guidance that can help families understand and manage their stress, ultimately promoting positive IECMH outcomes. When working with families, it can be helpful for providers to approach the situation using the lens of Family Stress Theory. This theory provides a framework for understanding the impact of stressors on families and highlights the importance of supportive relationships and resources in promoting family resilience and well-being (Hill, 1949).

Hill (1949) suggested that families’ responses to stress were dependent upon:

  1. Their previous experiences with stress;
  2. The meaning of this specific stress;
  3. The family context where the stress is experienced, including how the parent or caregiver is coping; and
  4. The inherent, as well as external, resources available to deal with the stress.

IECMH professionals can help families create a more stable and supportive environment for their children by being aware of social and cultural factors that inform their lived experiences. By leveraging Family Stress Theory, providers can work towards developing targeted interventions that consider a family’s unique history, lived experience, and current strengths and needs. This can lead to improved outcomes for young children and their families, including better mental health, stronger relationships, and greater resilience in the face of future challenges.

On September 21, 2023, at 11 a.m. ET we will host an informative webinar, Managing Bumps in the IECMH Road. During the webinar, we will be discussing both common and unique family stressors that impact IECMH for diverse populations. We will also explore culturally relevant tools, strategies, and resources to help decrease and manage family stress. Lastly, we will discuss the importance of understanding your role as a mandated reporter through a family-centered lens, which means taking into consideration the family’s needs and working collaboratively with them to ensure the safety and well-being of the child.


Barker, L. H., & Berry, K. D. (2009). Developmental issues impacting military families with young children during single and multiple deployments. Military medicine, 174(10), 1033-1040.

Center on the Developing Child (2013). Early Childhood Mental Health (InBrief). Retrieved from

Cohen, J., & Roderick Stark, D. (2017). The Basics of Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health. Zero to Three, 38(2)

Hill, R. (1949). Families under stress: adjustment to the crises of war separation and return.

Randall, A.K., Bodenmann, G. (2013). Family Stress. In: Gellman, M.D., Turner, J.R. (eds) Encyclopedia of Behavioral Medicine. Springer, New York, NY.

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