Stressed-Out Kids: The Mind-Body Connection
For children, as for adults, stress - a tension reaction to a challenge or a threat - is an unavoidable part of life. When short and manageable, stress offers the opportunity to stretch one's potential and adapt to new conditions - preparing for a test, welcoming a new sibling, or meeting a new teacher. When long and unmanageable, adult intervention is needed to help the child cope. Parents should be particularly watchful of two types of situations, chronic stress and posttraumatic stress syndrome (PTSD). In chronic stress the child feels overwhelmed by the tasks ahead - expectations at school, divorce in the family, conflict with peers. The long-term negative consequences on health can be insidious and may include a weakened immune system and higher risk of depression. PTSD occurs as the result of a traumatic experience - threatened death, serious injury or violence - and some children are unable to overcome the initial shock, reliving it with the same emotional intensity months and years later through memory intrusions or nightmares. Symptoms include avoidance of people or things associated with the event, and hyperarousal or increased startle response. Both situations can lead to potentially serious health ailments.
AboutOurKids.org asked Dr. Raul R. Silva, Associate Professor Child Psychiatry and Deputy Director, Division of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine and author of Posttraumatic Stress Disorders in Children & Adolescents: Handbook, to review the effects of stress on children and outline the latest treatments and coping techniques.
Q: Do children actually experience stress?
A: Yes, children experience stress. For a child, stress is any condition that affects his or her emotional or physical well being. It is not always detrimental though. The excitement of going to summer camp or the pressure of doing schoolwork are both different aspects of stress. It is important to note that the effect any kind of stress has on a kid depends both on the circumstances and the child's personality.
Q: How does the body respond to stress?
A: Under threat or challenge, the mind automatically determines which resources are needed to mount the speediest and best response, and then directs the body to produce the various reactions and chemicals required to meet the demand. This does not occur at the expense of other body functions though; rather the body selects what it needs to mobilize the best response for the current circumstances. The process is totally involuntary and unconscious. The body produces different substances such as hormones - cortisol, adrenaline - and chemicals such as catecholamines. For example if the mind decides your muscles need more energy for running away, it will get this energy from your liver in the form of glucose, and if it decides you need more oxygen, it will accelerate your breathing rate so your body gets more oxygen. There are times when the conscious mind cannot face the worries and anxiety of stress, and instead switches the burden to the body. When that happens, the stress reaction can manifest as headaches.
Q: When does stress become unhealthy? How can parents recognize signs of unhealthy stress in their children?
A: A response to stress is unhealthy when it interferes with everyday normal functioning: for example when the child stops doing his/her homework or when he/she reverts to earlier behaviors that are no longer age-appropriate, such as thumb sucking or bedwetting. Parents must observe carefully their child's behavior, listen and be sensitive to his/her needs. This is how they will be able to notice a negative change - either a worsening of problematic behaviors or a return to previously corrected behaviors. These negative reactions will of course be different with every child.
Q: What can parents do to help their children cope better with stress?
A: You help kids deal with stress mainly by giving them an avenue to discuss their concerns. Kids must trust that their parents will react with understanding and acceptance if they feel like saying "This is too hard, too difficult," or "I am scared, I am worried." You can also help them by modifying their expectations - at school for example - so they are not under undue pressure.
Reprinted with the permission of the NYU Child Study Center. © NYU Child Study Center.
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