The Effects of Childhood Stress and How You Can Help
Childhood stress is a natural part of life, and it’s not necessarily an entirely negative one. Our job is to help children reduce stress when possible and develop healthy coping skills when stress is unavoidable.
How Childhood Stress Affects the Mind and Body
What is stress exactly? Biologically speaking, stress is anything that activates the sympathetic nervous system. This leads to the release of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline.
The sympathetic nervous system is often called “fight-or-flight” mode. Historically, stress usually meant situations when we needed to engage in conflict (fight) or run away to safety (flight).
Our bodies similarly respond to all stresses. Unfortunately, for modern and chronic stresses (like being overscheduled or stuck in a traffic jam), this response isn’t so helpful.
Stress can lead to emotions like overwhelm, anger, and anxiety. It can also have physical effects such as:
- Increased heart rate
- Flushing or feeling hot
- Fast, shallow breaths
- Shortness of breath
- Queasy tummy
- Feeling shaky or trembling
- Desire to run or hide
If a child experiences constant stress or hasn’t learned effective coping skills, we may see long-term side effects like:
- Stomachaches or headaches
- Having extreme reactions to small stresses
- Being startled very easily
- Changes in sleep patterns or difficulty sleeping
- Feeling constantly tired
- Mood swings or acting out
- Habits like thumb sucking or hair twirling
- Becoming withdrawn
- Trouble concentrating or completing tasks
How to Reduce Childhood Stress
Some stress may be a natural part of life, but we can limit overwhelm by reducing stress when possible. Here are some keys to reducing childhood stress (these work for adults, too!):
Sleep is key. Children need between 9-13 hours of sleep per night, depending on their age. Lack of sleep causes physical stress, and it also heightens our reaction to other pressures.
Balanced nutrition. You’ve probably noticed that hungry children can get moody! Lack of proper nutrition can create stress in the body. Make sure your child has access to a variety of good food for meals and snacks.
No overscheduling. Kids need plenty of downtimes to explore and play on their own. An overpacked schedule can be a huge source of stress on children.
Healthy connections. Quality time with trusted family and friends is important for reducing childhood stress. It’s essential for kids to feel understood and know they have a safe place to talk about life’s problems.
Helping a Child Cope with Stress
Some childhood stress is unavoidable. We can turn that stress into a positive by teaching children healthy coping skills they can use throughout life.
The goal is to teach kids how to tune in and be mindful of how they feel. Daily check-ins and calming activities can help create positive habits. Here are some ideas:
Become a Stress Detective
Use these worksheets to help children learn how stress feels in their body:
Guide children with questions like:
- Did you notice a time where your body “alarm” went off? Where were you, and what were you doing? Was there anyone with you?
- Did you notice a time when you felt calm and peaceful? What were you doing?
- Where did you feel that in your body?
- What time of day was it?
- Did you notice any sensations in your body before, during, or after?
- If you put a name to this feeling, what would it be?
- Is there anything else you noticed?
Daily Breathing Practice
Deep breathing calms the nervous system and helps children tune into the way they feel.
Yoga and Mindful Movement
Daily yoga practice helps children bring awareness to their bodies. This helps them recognize feelings of stress and the big emotions it can create.
As a certified RYT200 and Yoga Calm® Youth Instructor and practitioner, I’ve seen firsthand the power of mindful movement. Here are just a few positive ways yoga can impact children:
- It activates the parasympathetic nervous system (the calming part of the nervous system).
- Yoga helps a child build strength and breath awareness.
- It teaches children to recognize and work through emotions in the body.
- It reduces stress and anxiety.
- Yoga enhances memory and cognitive function.
It can also improve sleep quality.
More Ways to Promote Calm and Reduce Stress
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Thanks for reading,