How Stress Affects Child Development

free anxiety workshop on childhood anxietyStress surrounds us on a daily basis. From traffic delays to work projects, worries about finances or health, and news reports of world events, the demands of our everyday lives produce both positive and negative stress. Stressors (which are the things that cause your stress) can be physical, emotional, theoretical, or environmental. Even positive events like weddings and job promotions cause stress.

Whether negative or positive, one thing is certain – stress raises the body’s anxiety levels. When we’re under stress, the “fight or flight” response kicks in, raising blood pressure and heart rate, and sometimes causing you to lose sleep or feel like you can’t breathe. While this response usually subsides after the stressor is removed, a prolonged or permanent stress response can develop in someone who is under constant stress. It’s called toxic stress, and children can be affected by it just the same as adults.

What are the Effects of Stress on Kids?

The incidence of obesity, diabetes and heart problems, cancer and other diseases goes up when a child lives with toxic stress. Additionally, their chances of depression, substance abuse and dependence, smoking, teen pregnancy and/or sexually transmitted disease, suicide and domestic violence greatly increase. So does their tendency to be more violent or to become a victim of violence.

Studies done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have shown that when a child is subjected to frequent or continual stress from thing like neglect, abuse, dysfunctional families or domestic abuse, and they lack adequate support from adults, their brain architecture is actually altered and their organ systems become weakened. As a result, these kids risk lifelong health and social problems.

Of the 17,000 people who took part in the CDC study, two thirds had an Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) score of 1 or higher. 87% of those people had more than one ACE. By measuring and scoring ten types of trauma ranging from childhood sexual abuse to neglect or bullying and even divorce, researchers were able to assess the chronic disease risk for the study’s mostly white, middle class participants. Their results show that the problem of toxic stress isn’t limited to children who face poverty or to those who come from certain ethnic groups – children from all walks of life can have high ACE scores.

If you are interested in finding out your ACE score and what it might mean for you, go here.

Signs of stress

Children who are exposed to toxic stress exhibit:

  • Poorly developed executive functioning skills
  • Lack of self-regulation and self-reflection
  • Reduced impulse control
  • Maladaptive coping skills
  • Poor stress management

Research on children who face continued toxic stress shows they have:

  • More trouble learning in school
  • More difficulty trusting adults and forming healthy relationships and an increased chance of divorce as an adult
  • Higher incidence of unhealthy behaviors such as substance abuse, sexual experimentation and unsafe sexual practices, engaging in high-risk sports, smoking and alcohol abuse
  • Higher incidence of depressive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD), behavioral disorders, and even psychosis
  • Poor health outcomes such as obesity, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and a higher suicide risk

Help for Toxic Stress

Awareness is key to preventing and reducing toxic stress in kids. Now that we know about the effects of ACEs, many states have conducted their own research. Some cities have set up task forces and others are working with schools, pediatricians, daycare centers and the justice system to set up screening programs that can turn lives around.

Protecting children from toxic stress involves a multi-faceted approach that targets both the caretaker and the child in order to strengthen family stability. Treatment includes intervention and implementation of methods that decrease stressors and strengthen the individual’s response to stress.

As more programs are enacted, researchers are finding that children benefit even when the solutions are solely focused on their caregiver and not on the child. This is likely because the caregiver’s altered interaction with the child makes the child feel safer. Parenting classes, family-based programs, access to social resources for parents, telephone support and peer support are beneficial, as are cognitive behavioral therapy and relaxation methods like yoga and mindfulness. Additionally, community-based programs like Head Start have been shown to be effective.

Do you have Questions?

For more information about toxic stress and its effects on child development, talk to the mental health professionals at The Center for Treatment of Anxiety and Mood Disorders in Delray Beach, Florida. Contact us or call us today at 561-496-1094.

 

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