This entry is brought to you by Jean Schoenleber, LCSW, Child First Clinical Director for the Lower Naugatuck Valley. Child First is an innovative, home-based early childhood intervention, embedded in a system of care. Child First works with the most vulnerable young children (prenatal through age five years) and families to decrease serious emotional disturbance, developmental and learning problems, and abuse and neglect.
Jean shares information in her post about different types of stress children may face and what you can do to support them.
As adults and parents we generally feel that being “stressed” is our job but not something that our children need to worry about. After all, aren’t we the ones who carry the weight of financial stressors, work pressures, family and health concerns? Surprisingly, it has been found that children can experience significant stress in their lives, even to the point of being seriously effected by it.
The impact of stress on children’s early development has been getting quite a lot of study recently and the findings are very interesting. The good news is that not all stress is damaging for children! As a matter of fact, learning to cope with a certain amount of stress and adversity is actually an important part of growing up healthily. The bad news is that certain kinds of stress can actually impact the development of young children’s brains and their ability to cope with life. So what makes the difference?
Experts have identified three different kinds of stress that children might experience and these have been called: Positive Stress, Tolerable Stress and Toxic Stress. The differences lie in how severe, repeating or lasting the stressful situation is for the child and in what relationships the child has that act as a “protective buffer” during or after the stressful experience.
Positive Stress, considered a normal and healthy part of development, causes a mild stress reaction for the child (which can include a faster heart rate and a mild increase in the stress hormone “cortisol” in the body). This might be something that normally occurs in life like the first day of school/child care with a first separation from a parent or going to the doctor for shots. Even starting in a new classroom for school-age children, can be stressful. Children can learn to build their coping strategies and build confidence in both themselves and those around them by coping with mild stress successfully.
Tolerable Stress is more severe and long-lasting for the child and might be something like the death of a loved one, maybe a natural disaster or a serious injury or hospitalization that the child experiences. IF the experience is “buffered” by the child being protectively cared for, comforted and reassured by adults who have a relationship with the child, they will be able to cope and return to functioning well, though there may be some difficulties in the short run.
Toxic Stress is the term for stress children experience when they face serious adversity that they are exposed to repeatedly or over a longer period of time. We might want to call this “overwhelming” or “intolerable” stress. It is particularly difficult for children if their caretakers are not able to protect them for whatever reason. We need to be concerned if a child is experiencing something like violence at home, physical abuse, homelessness, chronic hunger or if there is serious substance use going on at home (which almost always makes it hard for parents to be available to be the “protective buffer” for their child).
I know that sounds very heavy but there is more good news - parents, or other caring adults, can do a tremendous amount to make sure children’s stress experiences are positive or tolerable. You are really the most important factor and you can both protect your child from excessively stressful situations, be there for them if something does happen and help them learn positive lessons from their stressful experiences.
1. Recognize that stressful situations are serious to your child, even if they seem minor to you. Don’t minimize their concern. Listen!
2. Try to pay serious attention if your child is showing signs of stress either by complaining about something or – with younger children they are more likely to show stress through their behavior. This could mean being difficult at school or home, having trouble with something that they could do before or maybe clinging to you more.
3. Look at changes in behavior as a sign that something might be bothering your child. Children don’t generally want to be “bad” but they do often need your attention and help with whatever is underneath that difficult behavior.
4. Prepare your child for any kind of changes in their routine – even very young children who can not yet talk. Talk with them about what is going to happen! They can understand you and your tone of voice much earlier than you might think!
5. Teach children ways to cope with the normal losses in life such as writing a short note to send to their teacher who they just left. Or having a play-date with a child who was in their class who they might miss. Acknowledging these losses doesn’t make it worse for your child – it actually helps them feel that you understand and care, and teaches them that we can cope with what happens in life.
6. If they are going to be away from home or from you, like for a family visit over the summer, make sure they have special things that remind them of home and you. Maybe pictures or favorite objects.
8. Read with your child – finding books at the library on whatever topic you think is bothering your child can be a wonderful way to share time and talk about stressful situations!
9. Teach your child to listen to their body and to take time to do some calming-down activities if too “riled up”.
10. If your child experiences something especially frightening, remember that they will need extra reassurance from you that they are safe. They may need to be closer to you and may need to find different ways to express their fear for some time.
11. Take care of yourself!! This is possibly the best gift you can give your child because you can only be that “protective buffer” for them if you feel cared for yourself.
12. Get help if you or your child need it – maybe the hardest thing to do is to realize that no one can do it all for their children and sometimes everyone needs some extra support to deal with life’s challenges or be the parent that they want to be. Call 2-1-1 or ask at any community agency where you might be able to get help. Programs like “Child First” and “Triple P Parenting” have helped lots of families in our community!
To find out more about Child First in CT please click here: http://www.childfirst.com/cf/page/connecticut
To contact the Parent Child Resource Center/BhCare where Child First is Based in Derby, CT you can call: 203/954-0543