How stress affects your children, and how to recognise the signs

You have the ability to reduce your child’s stress levels. (mapodile/Getty Images)
You have the ability to reduce your child’s stress levels. (mapodile/Getty Images)

Most people see childhood as a happy, carefree time, but children can be adversely affected by stress.

While a certain amount of stress or short-term stress is normal and can even be positive, persistent long-term stress can have negative implications for your child’s personality.

Learning to cope with stress is also a natural part of development, but when does stress become overwhelming and negative for a child?

Persistent stress is the main culprit, but researchers also say that a child can be affected by a multitude of stressors interacting with one another.

For this reason, parents and teachers need to be aware of the stressors in a child’s life and try to help him cope.

How stress affects your child?

The effects of stress start in the womb, as maternal stress influences brain development. Stress levels in infancy permanently shape the stress responses in the brain.

A child whose brain develops in a stressful or non-nurturing environment overreacts to stressful events and controls stress hormones poorly throughout life. 

High levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the body can adversely affect growth, brain development and health of a foetus and child.

In extreme and rare cases, severe neglect or abuse can even stunt growth. 

When too much cortisol is released for extended periods, it has a negative effect.

The body is on constant stress-alert, and each time the person is faced with a stressor, cortisol gets released even more quickly, making it difficult for the person to relax over time and in adulthood.

A stressed child’s brain also receives less oxytocin and other positive neurotransmitters, depriving him of the positive effects of these hormones.

Stress levels in infancy have such an impact on hormone regulation and behaviour that experts say their effect is even stronger than the effect of genetics and life experience.

While persistent stress can be harmful, nurturing has the opposite effect, as it enhances neural connections in the brain and improves memory and learning. 

How stress affects an individual depends on several factors, including birth order, age and gender. According to researchers, children under 6 are particularly vulnerable to stress.

They can’t think about the event, its implications and how it’s separate from their feelings. They also haven’t learnt a range of coping skills yet.

For this reason, we need to protect them from stress and help them cope.

What causes stress in infancy?

A stressed parent, For example, marital problems, domestic violence or a mentally or physically ill parent.

  • Not feeding your child when he is hungry
  • Failing to offer comfort when your child is upset, disturbed or distressed
  • Limiting body contact, for example during feeding, during the day, and during the night when your child is distressed
  • Providing only low levels of human attention, stimulation, conversation and play.
  • Mental or physical abuse.

Other causes of stress:

  • Natural disasters
  • Crime
  • Divorce
  • Death of a loved one
  • Separation from family
  • Change in family composition
  • Exposure to arguing and interpersonal conflict
  • Constant changes in schools, neighbourhood, or childcare 
  • Sensitivity to noise
  • Sensitivity to temperature change 
  • Sensitivity to crowding
  • Fatigue
  • Over- or under-stimulation
  • Loss of personal property
  • Loss of a pet
  • Excessive pressure to succeed or perform
  • Hurrying
  • Disorganisation

What are the symptoms?

If a stressor has been present for a long time, the child might have developed a coping mechanism, which onlookers might consider to be the child’s normal behaviour or character.

For example, a child in a home fraught with arguing might become introverted soon after the marital conflict began.

Over time people might simply assume the child has an introverted character, even though this might be a result of troubles at home and not his true character. 

Therefore, it’s critical for parents to be aware of a child’s behaviour, quality of home life and environment, as well as any changes in it.

Here are some signs to look out for:

  • Feeding difficulties or decreased appetite
  • Irritability, sadness, panic or neck pain
  • Increased crying
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Trouble relaxing or sleeping
  • Acting out behaviours, including defiant speech and actions
  • Anger and aggression
  • Stomach aches or headaches
  • Being ill all the time
  • Inability to control emotions
  • Nightmares
  • Clinginess, whining
  • Being quieter than usual
  • Lethargy, daydreaming, withdrawal from activities
  • Regression 
  • Nervous habits, such as nail-biting, hair twisting, thumb sucking or sighing deeply
  • Trouble getting along with friends
  • Poor concentration
  • Disturbing imaginary play, such as drawing disturbing images
  • Hair loss.

How can you help your child?

1. Evaluate your home life

Take care of yourself as well as your child. Avoid arguing in front of your child, and have a unified voice in terms of rules and discipline. Seek help if you aren’t coping

2. Avoid pressuring your child

Ask yourself if you are pushing your child too hard, comparing him to others, criticising or nagging him

3. Encourage and praise your child

Be positive about the things your child is good at

4. Spend quality time together

Time spent talking, playing and simply being together can help your child relax and cope better with stress

5. Hug and touch

Physical contact helps children relax and increases the levels of “feel good” hormones in the brain

6. Laugh and have fun

Allow your child time to relax, play and get dirty. Fun and laughter increase the levels of “feel good” hormones in the brain

7. Physical exercise

Running around a playground or chasing after a football in the garden helps stress evaporate

8. Listen to your child

Ask your child what is worrying him. If he is old enough, he might be able to tell you or give you some idea

9. Anticipate potentially stressful situations

You can prepare your child for stressful changes, such as the birth of a sibling, or a move to a new home

10. Limit exposure to disturbing images

Children don’t know how to interpret disturbing images they see, for example, on TV. If your child sees something disturbing, explain that it won’t affect him or that people are coming to help

11. Promote honesty and openness

Encourage your child to express feelings openly and let him know his feelings of anxiety, loneliness, or anger are okay. 

12. Understand your child’s temperament

Some children cope better with stress than others. Understanding your child’s temperament and how he handles stress, will help you support him when stressed

13. Create order and consistency

If a child has a routine, he has a good idea of what is going to happen next, which helps him feel secure. Stay consistent in your behaviour so that he knows what to expect from you

14. Have quiet time

Ensure that your child is not on the go all day and that he has some quiet time, even if this is just reading for half an hour

15. Ensure your child gets enough rest

Nap time and a good night’s sleep are important for a child’s growth, development and ability to cope with stress

16. Reassure him

Reassure your child that all children have pressures but that you believe he can handle them

17. Stretch and breathe together

The Psychological Foundation of Canada suggests the following exercises you can do with your child:

The cloud push: Stand up tall, stretch up and practise pushing the clouds away. Try to reach a cloud and push it away. Keep pushing up and then let your arms fall to your side. Repeat several times

Who knows? Shoulder exercise: Raise shoulders up towards your ears. Hold and say “Who?” Then drop your shoulders and say “Knows?”

Deep breathing: Lie down. Close your eyes. Imagine there is a balloon on your tummy. Breathe in slowly and deeply through your nose for four counts, all the while imagining the balloon expanding with air. When the balloon is full, breathe out slowly for four counts to flatten the balloon. Repeat several times

Go tight – go loose: Standing up, with arms and hands to your side, clench your fists and squeeze tight. Then relax. Repeat, but also squeeze your arm muscles and then relax all muscles. Repeat the same exercise with other muscles, like the legs and face.

All children experience stress at one time or another. No matter what the situation, you have the ability to reduce your child’s stress levels and help him cope so that he can be mentally, emotionally and physically healthy in childhood and later life.

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