May is Mental Health Awareness month. This month, we want to focus on children and stress. Stress is your body’s reaction in response to challenge. For example, presenting to a large crowd can cause stress. You may experience stress when you feel pressure or threatened.
When the body responds to stress, the nervous system and certain hormones are stimulated. Adrenaline rushes into your body and cortisol into your bloodstream. Both hormones increase your blood pressure, breathing, heart rate, and metabolism. Your muscles get more blood flow as vessels become wider, putting your body on alert. Your liver releases stored sugars – glucose – giving you energy. And of course, you sweat. Each of these physical reactions is nature’s way of preparing you to react and handle pressure. It’s a similar sensation to the moment you slam your breaks on in the car to avoid a collision. After the moment passes, your heart is still beating wildly, your breath coming fast, and your muscles feel warm and swollen as if you’ve done rigorous exercise. Your whole body is awake and surging in a way that it doesn’t when at rest. This is a stress response and it is very useful in enhancing performance under pressure.
As you may have guessed, the stress response described above is your fight, flight, or freeze response. It is built into your brain. In many situations, it is positive but sometimes it can be negative.
It can be negative when a child has been exposed to stress over a long period of time. For example, starting school is stressful, so is moving to a new neighborhood. Both scenarios are commonly experienced and produce low levels of stress in children. But what happens when a child lives in a dangerous environment? What happens to a child when the stress response is turned on, but is not turned off? Imagine feeling like you’ve just slammed on your breaks to avoid an accident and the sensation never really leaves you.
A child who grows up in a home where domestic violence is common experiences stress constantly. Same with the child who lives in fear of the bully or the abuser. That jittery sensation of just having avoided a car accident stays active in the child constantly. When in constant survival mode, the nervous system remains activated and continues to pump out extra stress hormones (i.e. adrenaline and cortisol). This is called toxic stress. In adults and children, this can leave a body feeling overwhelmed, depleted, weakened, and worn out. Those experiencing low-level stress long-term can even have a weakened immune system and get sick more often. How do you know if your child is stressed? You can look for certain signs:
- Moodiness or irritability
- Inability to concentrate
- Trouble sleeping
- Panic attacks
- Sadness or depression
- Stomach aches, chest pain, or headaches
- Sudden allergic reactions including asthma or eczema
That child “acting out in school” may be experiencing long-term stress. In extreme circumstances, children who have experienced stress long-term can become traumatized and experience Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). When children have experienced trauma, they may require mental health therapy to help them recover, cope, and heal. Trauma can include witnessing or experiencing violence, death, sexual assault or abuse, domestic violence, loss of a loved one, car accident, being bullied, divorce, or living with an adult who has substance abuse or mental health issues. But sometimes, stress can be caused by every-day things that you yourself experienced as a child. These could be homework, pressures at school, not getting enough sleep, being too busy and not having enough time to play, rest, or relax. When the stress is not seriously harmful but rather just a part of living and growing up, there are things that you as a parent can do.
As a parent you can lead by example, stay calm, be positive, and engage with your child in relaxing activities such as coloring, yoga, meditation, painting, or just playing and being silly. Try not to focus on winning or perfection, tell your child that it is OK to make mistakes and that mistakes are part of learning. This could help relieve pressures from school or recreational activities such as sports. Ensure that your child gets good sleep! Never underestimate the power of a good night’s rest. If you face challenges at bedtime, make room for a 30-45 minute activity to help transition to bed. This could include picking out and reading a book together. Encourage your child to express herself and recognize when she is feeling stressed. You can do so by asking, “What are you worried about?” Then have a discussion about feelings and emotions. We build strong and resilient children when we strengthen relationships help our children feel successful, and help their minds focus on positive things.
Facing stress together, can strengthen the bond between parent and child and promote mental health and well-being. This contributes to building resiliency in children and helps them learn to cope with stress and even trauma they may experience later in life.
Research for this blog post came from Psychology Today’s “12 Tips to Reduce Your Child’s Stress and Anxiety”, kidshealth.org, and HealthyChildren.org “Helping Children Handle Stress”.