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Childhood Stress

Children_-_StressHigh Sensitivity to Stress isn't Always Bad for Children

Children who are especially reactive to stress are more vulnerable to adversity and have more behavior and health problems than their peers. But a new longitudinal study suggests that highly reactive children are also more likely to do well when they're raised in supportive environments.

The study, by scientists at the University of British Columbia, the University of California, San Francisco, and the University of California, Berkeley, appears in the January/February 2010 issue of the journal Child Development.

"Parents and teachers may find that sensitive children, like orchids, are more challenging to raise and care for, but they can bloom into individuals of exceptional ability and strength when reared in a supportive, nurturing, and encouraging environment," according to Jelena Obradović, an assistant professor in the School of Education at Stanford University (Dr. Obradović was at the University of British Columbia when she led the study).

The researchers looked at 338 kindergarteners, as well as their teachers and families, to determine how family adversity and biological reactivity contribute to healthy development.

They found that children who had significantly stronger biological reactions to a series of mildly stressful tasks designed to look like challenges in their daily lives were more affected by their family contexts, both bad and good. This means that highly reactive children were more likely to have developmental problems when growing up in adverse, stressful family settings.

But contrary to expectation, such children were also more likely to thrive when they were raised in caring, low-stress families because of their sensitivities to the supportive and nurturing qualities of such environments.

"The study tells us that when children are highly susceptible to stress, it's not always bad news, but rather should be considered in terms of the type of environment they live in," explains Obradović.1

Recognising Signs of Stress in Children

It’s not always easy to recognize when children are suffering from stress. The following are ‘tell tale signs’ that may helpful in identifying if your child is unduly stressed. Remember that none of these signs in isolation should cause too much concern. In fact most are pretty normal, it’s more patterns and changes in behaviour that you need to watch out for.

  • Short term behavioural change such as mood swings, irritability or acting out, changes in sleeping patterns or bed wetting.

  • Psychololigical symptoms such as lying, bullying or defying authourity, overeacting to minor issues.

  • Physical symptoms such as recurrent stomach aches or headaches.

  • Other signs include having trouble concentrating or completing school work, being withdrawn or spending more time than usual alone. Young children may pick up new habits like thumb sucking, hair twirling or nose picking.

Helping Children Cope With Stress

Assisting children in understanding and using effective adaptation and coping strategies must be based on the child's developmental level and understanding of the nature of the stress-inducing event. Teachers and parents can prevent and reduce stress for children in many ways:

  • Help the child anticipate stressful events, such as a first haircut or the birth of a sibling. Adults can prepare children by increasing their understanding of the upcoming event and reducing its stressful impact (Marion, 2003). Over-preparing children for upcoming stressful events, however, can prove even more stressful than the event itself (Donate-Bartfield & Passman, 2000).  Adults can judge the optimal level of preparation by encouraging the child to ask questions if he or she wants to know more.

  • Provide supportive environments where children can play out or use art materials to express their concerns (Gross & Clemens, 2002).

  • Help children identify a variety of coping strategies (e.g., "ask for help if someone is teasing you"; "tell them you don't like it"; "walk away").

  • Coping strategies help children feel more effective in stressful situations (Fallin, Wallinga, & Coleman, 2001). Help children recognize, name, accept, and express their feelings appropriately.

  • Teach children relaxation techniques. Consider suggesting to a child such things as "take three deep breaths"; "count backwards"; "tense and release your muscles"; "play with play dough"; "dance"; "imagine a favorite place to be and visit that place in your mind" (use creative imagery) (O'Neill, 1993).

  • Teach them to practice positive self-talk skills (e.g., "I'll try. I think I can do this.") to help in promoting stress management (O'Neill, 1993).

References:

1. Society for Research in Child Development

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