Aside from everyday stress associated with school, relationships and family dynamics, our kids are faced with increasing rates of: bullying in-person and through social media; poverty, food and housing insecurity; substance abuse within their families; exposure to mass shootings; and family separations.
There is significant scientific evidence demonstrating that this stress not only causes short- and long-term harm for kids, but that it alters brain development, as well.
When we are in short-term stressful situations, our bodies produce adrenaline. This helps us with our “fight or flight” response by increasing our heart rate and blood pressure to improve blood flow to our muscles, increasing our blood sugar to help our brain and muscles work optimally, dilating our pupils so we can see better, and increasing our respiratory rate so we have more oxygen available to our muscles and brain. This is critical when we come face-to-face with a mountain lion, for example, to enable us to fight or flee from danger.
Prolonged stress causes our bodies to produce the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol has longer lasting effects that cause prolonged increases in heart rate and blood pressure; suppresses the immune system; weakens bones and muscles; increases blood sugar for prolonged periods; decreases concentration; affects our mood; and causes fatigue.
One of the most significant problems for younger children experiencing prolonged stress is that cortisol affects brain development and is associated with smaller brain size and less efficient processing, and can alter gene expression within the brain. This effect on altered gene expression is known as epigenetics, which means that environmental factors, such as nutrition, toxins and stress, can change the way certain genes that affect how organs develop and function are expressed. These negative effects impact both mental and physical health for their lifetime.
How do we know which kids will be affected negatively and what stress is okay?
There are three types of stress responses: positive, tolerable and toxic.
A positive stress response is short-term, causes brief changes in our bodies, and is normal and essential. This is associated with events that can help motivate and improve performance, may feel exciting, and are perceived as being within our coping strategies, such as having an upcoming test or getting ready for an important game.
A tolerable stress response is more significant and longer-lasting, and may be caused by such things as a severe illness or injury, losing a loved one, losing stable housing, or experiencing a natural disaster. If the cause of stress is time-limited and the child has a loving supportive relationship with an adult who helps them adapt, their body systems recover from the damage caused by this stress.
A toxic stress response is most damaging and may occur from prolonged significant stress for a child who does not have a protective relationship with an adult. Toxic stress may be caused by chronic abuse or neglect, exposure to violence, substance abuse or mental illness in family members, or ongoing inadequate nutrition and/or housing. Aside from affecting brain development and function, toxic stress can lead to heart disease, diabetes, disordered sleep, difficulty in relationships, post-traumatic stress, anxiety, depression and substance abuse, and can contribute to a shorter lifespan.
So how do we support kids who have adverse childhood experiences in the effort to prevent lifelong health problems, and how do we help our kids to be more resilient?
It is critical for a child to have a loving, supportive, responsive adult in his or her life from the beginning, or as soon as possible. With infants and young children, it is important to have “face time” when an adult makes eye contact, talks with and responds to the child. We can also help children and teens learn to be more resilient. Empower them to make decisions and focus on their strengths. Model and help them learn positive coping strategies, such as talking to someone, listening to music or doing art, journaling, praying, exercising, meditating, or taking deep breaths. Practice self-care in ensuring they get proper nutrition, enough sleep and regular exercise. Volunteering and contributing to their community can help give them a sense of purpose and control in trying to make their world a better place. Understanding that they cannot always control a situation, but CAN control how they let it affect them and how they deal with it is essential.
The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University and HealthyChildren.org are great resources for more information.
Melissa Mason is a general pediatrician with Journey Pediatrics in Albuquerque. Please send your questions to her at email@example.com.