Stress in Children
Traditionally, stress has been defined in terms of its source (e.g., internal and external) (Marion, 2003). Internal sources of stress include hunger; pain; sensitivity to noise, temperature change, and crowding (social density); fatigue; and over- or under-stimulation from one's immediate physical environment. External stressors include separation from family, change in family composition, exposure to arguing and interpersonal conflict, exposure to violence, experiencing the aggression of others (bullying), loss of important personal property or a pet, exposure to excessive expectations for accomplishment, "hurrying," and disorganization in one's daily life events (Bullock, 2002). Although the research literature tends to focus on the impact of single-variable stressors on children's development, in real-life situations, children experience stress from multiple sources. Researchers note that multiple stressors interact with one another and can have cumulative effects (Stansbury & Harris, 2000). This Digest discusses how children experience and adapt to stress, and offers suggestions to teachers and parents on preventing and reducing children's stress.
How Vulnerable are Young Children to Stress?
Stress is experienced in many forms and varies by the individual, the child's developmental level, and the child's previous life experience. Adapting or managing stress appears to be highly dependent on a child's developmental capabilities and coping-skill inventory. Researchers suggest that children under the age of 6 are developmentally less capable of (1) thinking about an event in its entirety; (2) selecting from a menu of possible behaviors in response to any new, interesting, or anxiety-inducing event; (3) comprehending an event separate from their own feelings; and (4) modifying their physical reactions in response to change in stimuli (Allen & Marotz, 2003).
Stress can have positive as well as negative influences. The younger the child, the greater the impact of new events, and the more powerful and potentially negative stress becomes. Some stress is a normal part of a child's everyday life and can have positive influences. However, excessive stress can have both immediate and far-reaching effects on children's adaptability to new situations, even events that are seemingly unrelated to the specific stressful event.
Research indicates that the negative impact of stress is more profound on children who are younger than age 10, have a genetic temperament that is "slow-to-warm-up" or "difficult," were born premature, are male, have limited cognitive capacity, or have experienced prenatal stress (Monk et al., 2000). Children who live in poverty, who live in violent communities, or who are bullied in school settings are also subject to more external stress (McLoyd, 1998) than other children. Children who have lower thresholds for external and internal stimuli will find a wider variety of events and conditions to be negatively stressful (Stansbury & Harris, 2000).
Reprinted with the permission of the Education Resources Information Center.
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