From long days in the office to overloaded schedules, stress has become a workday bane in modern culture. For the younger generation, however, stress can have a darker side. If left untreated, childhood stress can inflict psychological and physical damage that individuals carry into their adult lives.
Seeds of stress
Mary Alvord is a psychologist and author with over 35 years of clinical experience. Whether it’s school, social pressures, or family issues, she feels there are plenty of daily triggers to stress children out.
Anxiety, especially over separation, is a common stressor among Dr. Alvord’s younger patients. “Children worry about being away from their parents and cling to them," she explains. Social anxiety, when “children worry they are being judged negatively by peers" is another contributor. Additionally, school work, tests, and speaking in front of the class can cause anxiety. So can feeling like there’s “too much to do and not enough time." Dr. Alvord also cites “family or sibling conflict" as a culprit.
David Elkind, a psychologist and Professor Emeritus of Child Development at Tufts University, agrees. “Probably the most frequent cause of child stress is family disruption," he says, naming divorce, abuse, and addiction as three aggressors. “Death of a loved parent or grandparent can also cause stress," he adds, “as does bullying and mistreatment."
While they might have plenty of reasons to be stressed, children aren’t often able to articulate their feelings. “Most children do not say they are anxious," Dr. Alvord reveals. Overwhelmed by unresolved emotion, afflicted children “might appear irritable" and “seek reassurance frequently." ‘What if’ questions are another device through which they might try to express their troubles.
Dr. Elkind warns against “any change in a child’s usual pattern of behavior." When under stress, children (not unlike adults) can react in irrational, uncharacteristic ways. “Some children become aggressive or take to stealing and lying," Dr. Elkind describes.
There are also physical signs of unresolved stress in children. Headaches, sleep troubles, and eating difficulties are some common hallmark signs both psychologists agree can be indications of a deeper disturbance within the child. In Dr. Alvord’s words: “We have to remember that the body and mind are interconnected, so if we are anxious, our body reacts with tension."
When children aren’t given emotional support during times of need, the effects can impair both their physical and mental development. According to Dr. Elkind, healthy self-worth is predicated on the assurance that “you are cared about and that someone loves you enough to sacrifice or give things up for you." He continues: “That sense of self-worth is essential to healthy social and emotional development." Without this emotional foundation, “the child’s senses of trust, autonomy, initiative, and industry can all be impaired."
Scientific studies have demonstrated some of the physical manifestations of a stressful childhood. A study by the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research showed that children with unresolved stress during their formative years had a higher risk of a weakened immune system, making them more susceptible to developing allergies later in life. A second study by the Radboud University in the Netherlands observed that chronically stressed children matured faster but had a harder time adapting to change than their peers. This was due to an evolutionary variance in how their brains developed in response to stress.
A third study led by Ethan Young from the University of Minnesota found that stressed adults who had also suffered from early childhood stress released higher levels of cortisol than adults who were not stressed. “It’s like having your body run on overtime for extended periods, which leads to exhaustion," says Mr. Young. Since the endocrine system (which regulates cortisol and other hormones) is linked to the immune system, chronic exposure to stress hormones can erode your body’s defense against invaders and allergens. Eventually, this can lead to “chronic inflammation that is known to underpin many physical health issues." Mr. Young’s study is a sobering demonstration of how early childhood stress can have physiological repercussions on the adult body’s stress response.
It’s important to keep in mind, however, that not all stress is damaging. “Some anxiety can be useful," Dr. Alvord reminds us. “It keeps us from doing something dangerous (walking into the street) or may motivate us to study more." In deciding at what point stress levels become a threat, Dr. Alvord advises watching for “how anxiety, or really any emotion, impacts functioning. When it interferes with life’s activities, then it is a signal that we need to intervene."
First line of defense
Since parents usually spend the most time with their children, preventing childhood stress begins with them. “Parents serve as models," says Dr. Alvord. Rather than “protecting their kids from all disappointments and obstacles" that could cause stress, parents should “teach them to take initiative and learn to problem-solve."
Dr. Elkind encourages parents to prioritize a regular time with their children, so they can pick up on warning signals before damage is done. “It is very important for each parent to spend some one on one time with each child to get to really know them," Dr. Elkind counsels.
In addition to modeling healthy coping strategies and being emotionally available, parents must be careful they are not a source of stress themselves. Dr. Elkind describes the healthiest environment as one in which “parents treat and respect each child as an individual and support their natural bents."
The path to recovery
Even in cases where damage is sustained, there is always hope. Depending on the degree of damage and how early it was inflicted, individuals might face greater challenges. However, “nothing is irreversible," Dr. Elkind promises.
Dr. Alvord is in accord. She references Cognitive Behavioral Therapy as a method through which individuals can overcome “negative thinking habits, emotion regulation, behavioral issues, and avoidance." With the right motivation and approach, it is never too late, she assures us: “We can challenge habits and make adjustments."