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Stress: Impact on Children and Teens (I)

By Dr. Andrea Porter, PhD, C. Psych.

This is the first of three articles discussing stress and its impact on children and teens. With a new school year well underway in the second year of the pandemic, parents should be on the lookout for signs of stress as well as when children and teens need support to calm their emotions and help bring their stress responses back to normal levels. Support from a caring adult can help turn would-be toxic experiences into tolerable or positive ones.

A quick primer on stress

No matter our age, we all experience situations when we have to handle more than we are used to. Our bodies automatically respond to stress with physical symptoms. These physical cues are triggered when our brains interpret danger in our immediate environment. Common signs of physical arousal include our hearts speed up, we breathe faster, and we get a burst of energy. The amygdala is our brain’s alarm or sensor which signals our physical body to ready ourselves for potential danger. The amygdala has served this evolutionary function since the beginning of time. Such physiological responses can be helpful when we need to work hard or react quickly. However, if stressful events happen too frequently or last too long, they can have long-term detrimental effects on healthy brain development and our overall emotional and physical well being – children and teens are no different. 

Recognizing signs of stress in children and teenagers, and helping them develop healthy coping strategies, will serve them into adulthood. Anything causing fear and anxiety can cause stress, and for children and teens, this could be starting a new school, making new friends, and worrying about their changing bodies. As adults, we may reflect upon our own experiences from the first day of school with mixed emotions, but today’s children and teens have the added burden of navigating their scholastic and social environments amidst a pandemic. 

Different kinds of stress

Sensations of butterflies in the stomach may signal that a child is dealing with stress, which could come from the excitement of meeting their teachers, joining a new club or team, or putting their hand up in class for the first time. Although stressful in the moment, these small challenges should be considered signs of positive stress, which help prepare children and teens for more significant challenges they will face in the future. 

More serious events, such as losing a beloved pet or moving homes, are likely to trigger stress responses that although are not pleasant, such as uncontrollable crying or sleeping troubles, can be described as tolerable stress. With the proper support from caregivers and family members these situations should not cause lasting damage to the healthy brain development and overall emotional well being. 

On the other hand, toxic stress can disrupt healthy brain development. It can occur in the absence of a caregiver helping the child make sense of a toxic environment and buffering them from repeated negative experiences. Abuse, neglect, parental addiction, violence inside the home, and chaotic environments are examples of toxic stress. Ignoring the signs of toxic stress can lead to health and social problems later in life, including heart disease and mental health challenges.

However, we must also consider the impact of COVID-19 and ensuing stress levels resulting from reduced activity levels and social isolation. When a situation becomes an adverse childhood experience, it can lead to toxic stress. The brain releases stress hormones such as adrenalin or cortisol, leading to a fight-or-flight response, which can aid in dealing with the immediate situation, but prolonged periods of elevated levels of stress hormones can create wear and tear on developing brains and bodies. 

Being aware of what children may be experiencing in terms of positive, tolerable, and toxic stress is the first step parents can take to help make stressful events more tolerable. 

The second article in this series will look at the impact of stress on children in the six to twelve age group and what actions a parent can take to provide nurturing, protective relationships. 


Citations

Araújo, L. A., Veloso, C. F., Souza, M. C., Azevedo, J., & Tarro, G. (2021). The potential impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on child growth and development: a systematic review. Jornal de pediatria97(4), 369–377. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jped.2020.08.008

“Stress,” Alberta Family Wellness Initiative, accessed: September 2, 2021, onlilne: https://www.albertafamilywellness.org/

“Stress,” Healthwise Staff, Healthlink.BC (December 16, 2019), online: 

https://www.healthlinkbc.ca/health-topics/sts15463#sts15463-sec

In collaboration with: Vic Gladwish, Gladwish on Demand Editorial Services.