Part 4: How Stress Affects Children

8 January 2016
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As if reading Parts 1, 2, 3 haven’t stressed you out enough, let’s go ahead and dive into how stress affects our children.  I’d like to say that the point of researching and writing this series is not to stress anyone out, but instead to make you (and me) realize just how important it is to learn to handle our stress and include more relaxation in our lives.

Stress is positive when the person feels stimulated and able to manage the situation. This positive response prepares the body for action and activates the higher thinking centers of the brain. A positive response to stress can provide the energy to handle emergencies, meet challenges, and excel.

Stress is negative when a person feels threatened and not in control of the situation. These feelings instigate a powerful reaction – affecting both the brain and body in ways that can be destructive to physical and mental health.stress11

Children are more stressed than ever these days.  Young children living in poverty or those living wealthy but expected to know how to read by four years old.  Stress does not discriminate.  A baby, toddler, or child’s body also does not discriminate when it comes to stress. It’s all relative to each child’s environment, and (if you read how stress affects pregnancy) even the stress level of their mother while pregnant with them.

We now know that early life abuse and neglect have adverse effects upon the developing brain and body that can result in poor self-control and emotional regulation, impair cognitive development, and raise the risk of cardiovascular, metabolic and immune system diseases. http://www.dana.org/Publications/ReportOnProgress/Effects_ofStress_on_the_Developing_Brain/

Animal findings demonstrate that isolation from mother, decreased skin stimulation, and withholding of breastmilk (not feeding on demand) have biochemical and permanent brain consequences. Correlating these findings with human behavioral research suggests which events lead to chronic stress and its permanent consequences.

Common Sources of stress in Infants: http://www.parentingscience.com/stress-in-babies.html

  • Being away from caregiver: Without regular closeness to a caregiver, an infant not only suffers from elevated stress hormones, but also receives less benefit from oxytocin surges and other positive biochemical influences. The biochemical environment imposed on an infant’s brain during critical development stages affects the anatomy and functioning of the brain permanently. A poor biochemical environment results in less desirable emotional, behavioral, and intellectual abilities for the rest of a child’s life.
  • Allowing a child to “cry it out” without affection
  • Not feeding the child when hungry
  • Not offering comfort when the child is disturbed or distressed
  • Limiting body contact during feeding, throughout the day, and during stressful parts of the night
  • Low levels of human attention, stimulation, “conversation,” and play

While it is evident that genetic makeup and life experiences influence behavior, it has been demonstrated that experiences during infancy have the strongest and most persistent effect on adult hormone regulation, stress responses, and behavior. Research has demonstrated that high levels of early physical contact and maternal responsiveness can even mitigate genetic predisposition for more extreme stress reactions.

Common Sources of stress in children: http://www.networkofcare.org/library/childrenandstress.pdf

  • being away from home
  • being bullied
  • fear of wetting themselves (ages 5 and older)
  • fear of punishment
  • worry about getting along with peers
  • worry about school work
  • fear of being chosen last on any team
  • fear of being different from others
  • worry about changing bodies (ages 10 to 12)
  • divorce of parents
  • move to new town or city
  • being held back in school
  • serious illness

The HPA (hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenocortical) axis, a relationship between specific brain organs and the adrenal glands, is the chief regulator of stress reactions. During stress, stress hormones are released under control of the HPA axis to help the body cope. Cortisol can elevate the blood pressure and the heart rate, increase blood sugar, and interrupt digestive and kidney functions.

The hippocampus, a structure important in learning and memory, is one brain site where development is affected by stress and bonding hormone levels. The level of the stress hormones circulating in an infant affects the number and types of receptors here. It has also been demonstrated that nerve cells in the hippocampus are destroyed as a result of chronic stress and elevated stress hormone levels, producing intellectual deficits as a consequence.  Children with the lowest scores on mental and motor ability tests have been shown to be the ones with the highest cortisol levels in their blood.

Continuously elevated stress hormone levels in infancy from a stressful environment are associated with permanent “negative” effects on brain development, causing heightened stress responses that can lead to aggressive behavior and early puberty.  Early life stress has also been tied to depression, anxiety, heart disease, cancer, and a lack of educational and employment success.

Behavioral problems and increased cumulative life stress were also linked to smaller hippocampus and amygdala volumes. Why early life stress may lead to smaller brain structures is still unknown.

Studies have shown that infants who receive frequent physical affection have lower overall cortisol levels, while psychological attachment studies reveal higher levels in insecurely attached children.  http://education.jhu.edu/PD/newhorizons/strategies/topics/Keeping%20Fit%20for%20Learning/stress.html

Common Signs that your infant or child is experiencing stress: http://pubs.ext.vt.edu/350/350-054/350-054.html and https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002059.htm

Physical symptoms can include:

  • Decreased appetite, other changes in eating habits
  • Accident proneness
  • Hitting, Kicking, Biting
  • Extreme Laziness
  • Tattling
  • Fingernail biting
  • Grinding Teeth
  • Pounding Heart
  • Thumb Sucking
  • Headache
  • New or recurrent bedwetting
  • Nightmares
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Stuttering
  • Upset stomach or vague stomach pain
  • Other physical symptoms with no physical illness

Emotional or behavioral symptoms may include:

  • Anxiety
  • Worries
  • Inability to relax
  • New or recurring fears (fear of the dark, fear of being alone, fear of strangers)
  • Clinging, unwilling to let you out of sight
  • Questioning (may or may not ask questions)
  • Anger
  • Crying
  • Whining
  • Inability to control emotions
  • Aggressive behavior
  • Stubborn behavior
  • Regression to behaviors that are typical of an earlier developmental stage
  • Unwillingness to participate in family or school activities

We need to lead by example with handling our own stresses, and give our children the tools to handle theirs. The younger the child, the easier it is to set a solid foundation. You can’t lead a life of stress but then effectively teach stress management, it’s just not possible.

Be aware of how you are disciplining your child(ren). If children fear their parents, they are constantly experiencing stress over their actions.

Ways to Help Our Children:  http://www.healthychildren.org/English/healthy-living/emotional-wellness/Pages/Helping-Children-Handle-Stress.aspx and http://handtohold.org/resources/helpful-articles/what-causes-children-stress-understanding-childrens-developmental-stages-and-common-stressors/ and http://pubs.ext.vt.edu/350/350-054/350-054.html

  1. Be with your infant and hear their cues: Hold her. Rock her. You will not spoil a baby by holding her. Listen and learn your infant’s specific cues of hunger, wetness, being uncomfortable or unhappy and tend to their needs.
  2. Stop Overscheduling: One of the biggest stressors for kids is being overscheduled. Today, kids are expected to pay attention and perform in school for seven hours, excel at extracurricular activities, come home, finish homework, and go to bed just to do it all over again the next day. Kids need downtime to rejuvenate. Their brains and bodies need to rest. And they might not realize this by themselves. So knowing when your child is overscheduled is important.
  3. Make time for play: Children of all ages process their emotions through play. They need many opportunities to “play out” their worries and concerns. For younger children this may be done through pretend play while older children may choose to express themselves through avenues such as art and music. No matter what their age, let them know that you want to hear what they have to say and that you will do your best to help them through this crisis. Make sure that play isn’t “pressured” and there is no lesson to learn, competition, or end goal. (Bike riding, imaginative play, hiking, exploring.)
  4. Make sleep a priority: Sleep is vital for everything from minimizing stress to boosting mood to improving school performance. Keep electronics out of the bedroom.
  5. Teach Body Awareness: Understanding stress and when the body feels stressed may need to be taught. Encourage children to listen to what their bodies are saying.
  6. Manage your own stress: Stress is contagious and your children will feel your own stress. If you slow down, they will follow.
  7. Make mornings calmer: Disorganization, constant hurry, and pressure to perform from the moment they wake up is a stressful trigger.
  8. Prepare them to make mistakes: Perfection is not and should not be attainable. You are not perfect and neither is your child. Striving for such a thing can set the rollercoaster of lifelong chronic stress. Making mistakes, even BIG ones, is normal.  Making bad decisions is also normal.  Teach them how to recover and be loved through these moments.
  9. Encourage your child to face her fears, not run: Avoidance of anxiety causes further anxiety. By facing fears, stress naturally lowers.
  10. Focus on the Positives: Many times anxious and stressed children can get lost in negative thoughts and self-criticism. They may focus on how the glass is half empty instead of half-full and worry about future events. The more that you are able to focus on your child’s positive attributes and the good aspects of a situation, the more that it will remind your child to focus on the positives.
  11. Encourage your child to express his anxiety: Avoid telling your child how they feel (“You’re fine”). Instead, use statements that prompt a response (“You seem scared. Are you worried?”). This will ignite a conversation.
  12. Practice relaxation exercises with your child: Sometimes really basic relaxation exercises are necessary to help your child to reduce their stress. This might mean telling your child to take a few slow, deep breaths (and you taking a few slow breaths with your child so your child can match your pace). You can also meditate or do yoga exercises together.

 

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