Kids and Stress

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

Our body’s multifaceted stress response mobilizes our inner resources for all that life throws at us. Last time we overviewed how the chronic demands and hassles of our modern life may repeatedly turn on physical stress reactions, which can add up to big wear-and-tear trouble.

Today, let’s look at stress in children. Do infants and children suffer problems related to stress too?

The answer is a very certain yes and we can push the clock back further to include the period of foetal development. Research shows that a pregnant woman’s experience of stress is communicated to the foetus.

You don’t want to be a stressed foetus. Maternal stress in mice delays the physical development of the foetus. Human babies of stressed mothers have a lower weight and are shorter babies. Underfed pregnant women have babies who have adjusted to their meagre nutritional circumstances to become very thrifty with any nutrients they receive. They secrete insulin quickly and so store away extra nutrients quickly. This essential adjustment continues through life and results in a vulnerability to obesity and diabetes later.

In fact, the die may be cast in early development for many problems later in adulthood, an area of research called Foetal Origins of Adult Disease. Like an echo, our early environment can establish a trajectory for life-long problems. Some of the dark clouds on the stressed infant’s horizon include a poorer regulatory response to stresses, greater levels of anxiety, problems with learning and memory and an array of medical issues.

Infants respond with stress to many novel situations. Six month olds react with stress to baths and medical examinations, but these reactions diminish if no harm is done. Because infants know zip about the world, anything that is novel can be stressful because any new stuff could be dangerous.

Infants react with stress to disruptions in their relationships too. For example, when a parent gives a neutral expression to their infant’s emotional response, the infant demonstrates a physiological stress response. A paper in Biology Letters last year reported that 6 month olds have more cortisol in their saliva (a measure of stress) after their parent stares blankly twice for two minutes. When these infants were brought back to the scene of the crime the next day, but with their parent acting normally, they again showed increased cortisol levels. The infants’ “Uh oh, here we go again” reaction on the second day anticipated changes in their relationship.

Children’s stress response turns on in reaction to parental anxiety, changes in attentiveness and general parenting style because these relationships are nothing less than their lifeline.

If you’re a parent it may be difficult to read this without your own cortisol levels moving up! Child development is a bumpy road and the stress response is one part of a vast company of adaptations that help kids develop adaptive resilience and learn about their external and internal worlds. It’s normal. Just as with baths and medical exams, if nothing bad happens, it’s not a problem. The fact is that the bumps are occasions for exercising healthy resilience. When kids have an adequate, safe and secure base – the healthy parental attachment – which supports their quick return to homeostatic balance, bumps are fine.

The concern is with chronic dysfunction that causes chronic stress which results in chronic problems.

A violent, unpredictable, cruel, alcoholic or neglectful home will absolutely be a profoundly stressful one for an infant and child, establishing conditioned patterns of behaviour and physical and emotional reaction that will be a part of the child’s inheritance for life.

Addressing any of this can begin at any time. We have a huge capacity to come to terms with adversity and to change the established patterns of reaction that are formed in childhood.