Stress is manifested in both adults and children. To understand how stress affects your child, we will briefly go through how their body works, then what stress factors are beneficial or harmful, and finally, I will illustrate some techniques to help you manage your child’s stress.
Child’s stress and healthy development of a child
Worrying about schoolwork, juggling responsibilities, problems with friends, peer group pressures on social media, changing school set-up, moving or dealing with housing problems, having negative thoughts about themselves, going through body changes, seeing parents go through a difficult time as a couple, money problems in the family, news headlines and images showing the current worldwide or local situation with the pandemic—all of these things prompt the child’s stress.
Extensive research on the biology of stress shows that the healthy development of a child can be either enhanced or derailed by stress. Stress can be beneficial by helping children develop the skills needed to adapt to a new set of circumstances and deal with dangerous and intimidating situations. But there is a point where prolonged or excessive stress becomes harmful and can lead to serious health effects. Before diving into both the beneficial stressors and what makes stress “toxic”, let’s take a look at this graphic below to understand what happens in your child’s body, or any human body, during stress.
Imagine for a second that you and your child are taking a casual walk when suddenly a balloon falls right on top of you. You would probably experience a jolt of surprise and fear, almost like being hit by a rock, right? Your brain doesn’t have time to process that it’s just a balloon. That jolt is your immediate stress response. Inside your body, the process goes something like this. The amygdala, which processes emotions and responds to fear, gets activated by a stressful event. The amygdala signals to the hypothalamus and turns on the sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight response), prompting the adrenal glands to secrete epinephrine and norepinephrine into the bloodstream. This causes an increase in heart rate, pulse, oxygen circulation, glucose circulation and focus.
If your brain continues to register danger and fear for a prolonged period, your hypothalamus will start pouring out corticotropin-releasing hormone. This hormone stimulates the pituitary gland to secrete adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). ACTH travels to the adrenal glands via the bloodstream and binds to receptors on the cells to stimulate the production of cortisol. An increase in cortisol results in an increase in blood pressure, blood sugar levels, and suppression of the immune system.
Mild and moderate stress in children development
Moderate, short-lived stress responses, such as brief increases in heart rate or mild changes in the body’s stress hormone levels, are a normal part of life. Learning to adjust to this stress response is an essential feature of the healthy development of a child. Adverse events that provoke positive stress responses tend to be those that a child can learn to control and manage well with the support of caring parents and educators, and which occur against the backdrop of generally safe, warm, and positive relationships. Examples are the challenges of meeting new people, dealing with frustration, entering a new school, etc.
However, healthy development can be derailed by excessive or prolonged activation of stress response systems in the body and the brain. Toxic stress refers to strong, frequent, or prolonged activation of the body’s stress management system, which I described above. Stressful events that are chronic, uncontrollable, and/or experienced without children having access to support from caring parents and educators tend to provoke these types of toxic stress responses. Studies indicate that toxic stress can have an adverse impact on brain architecture.
Learning how to cope with mild or moderate stress is an important part of healthy child development. When your child’s stress response systems are activated in the context of supportive relationships with you and the other people around, these physiological effects are buffered and return to baseline levels.
The relationships children have with parents or caregivers influences their stress hormone
The relationship your child has with you, in contrast with caregivers or educators, plays a critical role in regulating stress hormone production during the early years of their life. This means that they are able to explore the world, meet challenges, and be frightened at times without sustaining the adverse neurological impacts of chronically elevated levels of hormones, such as cortisol, that increase the reactivity of selected brain systems to stress and threat.
In contrast, children whose relationships are insecure or disorganised demonstrate higher stress hormone levels, even when they are only mildly frightened. This results in an increased incidence of elevated cortisol levels, which may alter the development of brain circuits in ways that make some children less capable of coping effectively with stress as they grow up.
Benefic stress factors and stress symptoms
Here is a list of beneficial stressors:
-Getting to know a new friend, colleague or “romantic” interest better.
-Learning and adapting to new routines. When you travel, or when you have to stay in the house because of a pandemic, both you and your child must get out of your routines and comfort zones and adapt to different foods, schedules, scenery and more.
-Connecting, playing or studying with others.
-Staying committed to an exercise routine, even when your child may not feel like it.
-Developing a new skill, especially if your child has to practice in order to improve or must work through the awkward beginner’s stage. For example, learning a new hobby, language or sport.
-Getting over a rejection or when a parent says “no” to a request that doesn’t sound reasonable.
Children may not recognise that they are stressed. New or worsening symptoms may lead you to suspect an increased stress level is present. Here is a list of physical symptoms you may want to observe when it comes to children stress:
-New or recurrent bedwetting, nightmares, or sleep disturbances
-Upset stomach, vague stomach pain or other physical symptoms with no physical illness
-Decreased appetite, other changes in eating habits
Emotional or behavioural symptoms may include:
-Anger, crying, whining
-Not able to control emotions
-Aggressive or stubborn behaviour
-Going back to behaviours present at a younger age
-Doesn’t want to participate in family or school activities
-Not able to relax, feeling anxiety and worry
-New or recurring fears (fear of the dark, fear of being alone, fear of strangers)
-Clinging, unwilling to let you out of sight
Techniques to help you manage your child’s stress
You may be asking yourself how you can help your child. The good news is that you definitely can help your child respond to stress in healthy ways.
First, provide a safe, secure, and dependable home. Family routines are very comforting for children. Having a family dinner or movie night can help relieve or prevent stress.
Second, be a role model. The child looks to you as a model for healthy behaviour. Do your best to keep your own stress under control and manage it in healthy ways. During uncertain times, like the current pandemic, I would be especially careful about which television programs or social media pages young children watch, read and follow online.
Third, keep your child informed of anticipated change, both long term and short term. Personally, when my son was three to six years old, I used sticky notes all around the house to remind myself to let my boy know five to ten minutes in advance what the next activity would be. Today, he’s quite comfortable with managing change due to our practice early in his life.
Fourth, encourage physical activity. Be active yourself. I do not have the motivation every morning to do my one-hour pilates routine, but I know my child is watching me, especially now that we are all in quarantine. So, I simply do it. And if do not, because I’m not feeling well, I talk about it openly during breakfast to model that it is ok to skip it some of the time as long as you are consistent overall.
And last but not least, build your child’s feelings of self-worth. Help your child discover her/his strengths, here is a tool I recommend for that: https://www.viacharacter.org/survey/account/register#youth. Use encouragement and affection. Give your child opportunities to make choices and have some control over their life. The more your child feels they have control over a situation, the better their response to stress will be.
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