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Stress and Children

stress blog post

How does it affect the body, and how can we best manage it?

We are all familiar with stress. Not surprisingly, it is a common feeling among American adults. According to a survey completed by the Anxiety & Depression Association of America, seven out of ten adults in the United States say they experience stress or anxiety daily, and almost every adult states it interferes at least moderately with their lives. It is such a common phenomenon that November 3rd is annually dedicated to Stress Awareness. Likely, you have felt stress, and know that it really does not feel that great, and often stress is felt at the most inopportune moments in life. But what is this feeling exactly? How can this have an impact on our children’s health and development, and what coping strategies can we provide them when they experience different types of stress?

Let’s start with what stress is. Stress is the body’s natural response when faced with danger, or what it believes to be dangerous. It’s what helped our ancestors deal with potential hazards and life-threatening situations so many years ago. This short-term response will not likely cause many health concerns.

However, chronic stress – when you’re under severe stress for days, weeks, and/or months – can pose numerous health risks to the body. Such risks may extend to your body and mind, as well as your emotional well-being. Stress may even lead to an inflammatory response in the body, which has been associated with numerous chronic health issues. This response starts a chain of reactions, which starts with a part of the brain called the hypothalamus. When the body experiences stress, the hypothalamus sends microscopic signals throughout the nervous system, and then to the kidneys. From there, the kidneys release “stress hormones”, or adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline can cause the body to feel jittery, off balance, and shaky. Stress can also raise your blood pressure, causing you to feel a hot sensation throughout the body and can also impact the digestive system. Not only does it impact your body during the day, but stress can wreak havoc on your sleep schedule, even causing insomnia in severe cases. It is no question that stress can take a toll on your physical and mental health. So, most importantly, how does this impact our children?

Stress may be a response to a negative change in a child’s life. In small amounts, stress can be good. This is often referred to as “positive stress”. It can provide the opportunity for children to build healthy stress response systems when paired with an environment of supportive relationships with adults. But, excessive stress, or commonly referred to as “toxic stress” can heavily impact the way in which a child thinks, acts, and feels. When it comes to early child development, toxic stress has the potential to change brain chemistry, brain anatomy and even gene expression. Toxic stress weakens the architecture and build of the developing brain, which can lead to lifelong problems in learning, behavior, and both physical and mental health.

First, it’s important to know the signs. Some physical symptoms of toxic stress in children can include, but are not limited to: headaches, decreased appetite, recurrent bedwetting, sleep disturbances, and even persistent nightmares. Emotional symptoms of stress can include new or reoccurring fears (fear of the dark, fear of strangers, etc.), aggressive behavior, crying, clingy behavior, or the inability to control emotions.

The best course of action is to suggest ample coping strategies while providing a safe, dependable, and supportive environment. Here are a few more tips that we suggest:

  • Parents provide stable routines, which can include stress-relieving activities like a weekly family movie or game nights.
  • Keeping your child well-informed of anticipated changes such as big moves or job changes can prevent additional stress as well.
  • Allow your child opportunities to make choices and have control of aspects of their life, this helps in building confidence and self-worth.
  • Involve your children in activities and choices where they can succeed, and on the off chance they do not get something “right”, use words of encouragement and affirmation when helping them succeed on their second try.

The beauty in coping strategies is that there is an array of options to try! Popular coping strategies include physical exercise and creative outlets, such as playing outside in nature or experimenting with clay. Physical exercise can help produce endorphins – the feel-good chemicals. For example, yoga is a powerful tool to add to your arsenal and this physical exercise can be easily taught and explained to young children. Creative outlets, such as learning a musical instrument or painting, are also wonderful ways to boost imagination and beat stress.

Here at The Nest Schools, we provide opportunities to experiment with yoga, mindful breathing, and meditation, normalizing the importance of taking care of your mind and body, whether stressed or not. We also move through experimental art and classical music to explore how both make us feel individually and collectively, providing the tools children need to communicate their own emotions and feelings. Another benefit that an early learning program such as The Nest Schools provides is that it allows children to establish predictable routines, giving comfort and certainty in their own lives.

Looking to brainstorm on coping methods to share with your children? We asked coordinators and teachers at our Clemmons location how they best manage stress, and we found that the activities that bring them peace and relaxation are completely different from person to person!

Hummingbird Floater, Kayla Lookabill Bregel, likes to take hot baths, while Cardinals Assistant Teacher, Brittany Leak, likes to find time for herself to write in her journal, listen to music, and pray. Our Pelicans Coordinator at Clemmons, Kelly Styron, likes to play video games to blow some steam while Alexis Angel, Lead Ducklings Teacher, loves to bake and spend time with family to relieve stress and relax. All of these activities are great examples of coping methods and stress management.

Finally, when signs of unresolved “toxic stress” are present in children, be sure to seek help and/or advice from a health care provider, counselor, or therapist when symptoms do not decrease or disappear. This is especially important in cases where a child has become withdrawn, unhappy, or even depressed. With healthy coping strategies and parental support, children can adapt and conquer stressors and be more than prepared to face stress head on in the future.