How Stress Affects Children

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I wanted to write about this to bring more awareness about the impact of stress on our children. It can be easy to overlook the stress that our children face when they don’t face the same level of stressors that we do – like having to work and paying the bills. Young children are inexperienced in the ways of the world. The things we take for granted are still new experiences for them. Simple things like going to school or attending a big social gathering can be stressful for them. For children (and even some adults), going to a place with too much noise or bright lights can also be stressful!

The difficulty with stress and young children is that they can’t tell us they feel stressed. They often don’t know what it is that they are feeling except that it feels uncomfortable or scary. Sometimes, it may manifest as a bodily discomfort, like a tummy ache or a headache that has no obvious physical cause. Some other ways children express stress:

  • Being moody or irritable
  • Withdrawing from activities they once enjoyed
  • Routinely expressing worry
  • Complaining about school
  • Crying
  • Being fearful
  • Being overly clingy
  • Changing eating and sleeping patterns

Our lifestyle moving forward grows ever more rapid and hectic, increasing the stress levels that our children will have to face as they navigate through life. It is important to remember that your child is a unique individual and his or her stress tolerance will differ from other children. It is not an indication of your parenting if your child struggles more than another child.

The following video provides a terrific overview of stress – how it affects us and a really simple way to manage stress.

Good Stress vs Bad Stress

Before we talk about the negative impact of stress, we need to acknowledge that not all stress is bad. Up to a certain level, when managed effectively, stress can lead to enhanced performance. We call this “good stress”. Once the stress levels exceed our ability to cope (past the point of fatigue in the graph below), it can lead to decreased performance, exhaustion, illness and eventual breakdown. We call this “bad stress”.

Stress Management - Good Stress vs Bad Stress
Image Source: Explorable

When we teach our children good stress management skills, we achieve two things:

  • We extend their fatigue point so that they can continue to perform optimally for longer.
  • We enhance their peak performance.

What happens when our children can’t cope with the stress?

Bad Stress Affects Learning

When children are overwhelmed by stress, they struggle to learn. This is because stress inhibits the brain’s ability to learn by:

  • Preventing the formation of long-term memories. Over time, prolonged stress can lead to shrinkage of the hippocampus, a part of the brain that is responsible for memory formation.
  • Sabotaging the pathways in the prefrontal cortex which is part of the brain that is responsible for carrying out executive functions. The executive functions, which include judgment, planning, self-control, reasoning, working memory and decision-making, are essential for successful learning.

Bad Stress Affects Performance

A simple example of how stress affects performance can be seen when our minds “go blank” during a test. We struggle to recall the answers to the questions only to remember them after the test is over. This is because stress inhibits working memory and memory retrieval.

Chronic Stress and Depression

Sustained or chronic stress, in particular, leads to elevated hormones such as cortisol, the “stress hormone,” and reduced serotonin and other neurotransmitters in the brain, including dopamine, which has been linked to depression. – WebMD

Stress that is experienced over a prolonged period of time can lead to depression in individuals who are susceptible. This stress-depression relationship can lead to a negative downward spiral fueling further stress and greater depression.

Chronic Stress Kills

Stress causes deterioration in everything from your gums to your heart and can make you more susceptible to illnesses ranging from the common cold to cancer. – Live Science

At the very worst end of the spectrum, stress degrades health, eventually leading to death. If that’s not a good reason to start teaching our children good stress management skills, I don’t know what is.

Typical Causes of Stress

What are the causes of stress in a child’s life? The following are some examples cited by John Hopkins:

  • disrupted homes, blended families, both parents working outside the home
  • increased exposure to violence, both real and on the screen
  • excessive screen time
  • being over-scheduled
  • feeling pressured to perform or behave beyond their ability
  • failing an exam
  • physical appearance
  • judgment or evaluation by others
  • unrealistic classroom demands
  • the future
  • problems with peers
  • problems with a boyfriend or girlfriend
  • any situation that threatens self-esteem
  • disagreements with teachers, parents or other adults

Stress Management – Prevention

Stress Management - Yoga for Kids
Image Source: Childhood101

The following are great ways to help children manage their stress:

  • Encourage children to stay active in sports and exercise because these activities release endorphins which make us feel good.
  • Teach them to practice mindfulness meditation which is a form of mental relaxation for the mind. Yoga is another great activity for relieving stress.
  • Make sure they get enough time in with friends and family because warm, social connections provide a buffer against the negative effects of stress.
  • Get them back to nature because nature increases our resistance to stress and depression.
  • Make sure they get enough sleep because a lack of sleep can increase our feelings of stress. Like stress and depression, stress and sleep are also interrelated. When we feel stressed, we may find it harder to sleep, when we don’t get enough sleep, we feel more stressed. The quality of sleep is also important. One study shows deep sleep can decrease anxiety overnight by reorganising connections in the brain.
  • Help them take time out for themselves to recuperate from the hustle and bustle of daily life.

Stress Management – Coping Skills

The following posters are great for working with younger kids:

Image Source: Childhood101

“Take 5” Calming Steps © Victoria Tennant Consulting

You can teach your child to “Take 5” Calming Steps which have been explained in great detail on the John Hopkins School of Education website:

Step 1: I notice how I feel.

  • Body signals might be tight muscles, shallow breathing, fast breathing, hot face, pounding heart, sweaty hands, stomach or headache, and fuzzy brain.
  • Emotions might be nervousness, anxiety, scared, upset, frustration, or mad.

Step 2: I accept myself.

  • Say out loud: “Even though I….. I am…..”
    • Even though I feel angry, I am a good kid.
    • Even though I feel frustrated, I am an awesome kid.
    • Even though I feel nervous, I am a smart person.
  • Option: Say the statement 3 times while tapping the Karate Chop point.

Step 3: I calm myself.

  • Choose something from your calming menu:
    • Take deep breaths.
    • Tense and relax your muscles.
    • Imagine something positive.
    • Do a Brain Gym movement.

Step 4: I notice how I feel now.

  • Body signals might be loose muscles, slower & deeper breathing, cool face, quiet heart, dry hands, no more stomach or headache, and clear brain.
  • Emotions might be relaxed, calm, peaceful, quiet, or happy.

If you’re still stressed, repeat Step 3.

Step 5: I tell myself something positive.

  • “I am relaxed and do my best.”
  • “I am calm and remember what I learn.”
  • “I am calm and make good decisions.”

Stress Management – Breathing Exercises

Breathing exercises can also be an effective way to help you manage stress because it helps to trigger the body’s relaxation response. Deep breathing sends a message to your brain to calm down and relax. It helps to reverse your body’s response to stress, such as an increased heart rate, faster breathing, and high blood pressure.

Learn more about Breathing Techniques: A Guide to the Science and Methods.

Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

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