Stress and Development

foodforthoughtI want to say a few words about the relationship between stress and child development.

My working definition of “stress” is anything unpleasant that happens to you, stopping short of trauma. Things that could count as stress for a child include:

  • having a bully pick on you
  • falling and bumping your head
  • not being able to figure out a jigsaw puzzle
  • not knowing where you’re going to sleep at night
  • being excluded from play by an older sibling
  • hearing your parents argue
  • having nightmares
  • learning to tie your own shoes
  • getting dropped off at preschool
  • … and so on.

You get the idea—stress is a broad term. Anything that makes your brain say, “Oh, I don’t like this.” But—and this is the tricky thing—stress isn’t necessarily bad for kids. In fact, in some ways it’s good, even necessary. Stress in small, occasional doses is good for development; stress in large or chronic doses is bad for development.

It all comes down to a complicated little molecule called cortisol. Cortisol is often called “the stress hormone.” When you experience any kind of stress, you brain produces cortisol, and cortisol interacts with your brain cells. But the effect cortisol has on brain cells varies quite a bit, depending on dosage.

In small doses, cortisol is absolutely great for your brain. It helps encode memories as new neural pathways; in other words, it makes learning happen. When you’re struggling a little with something—when you’re feeling frustration—cortisol is what makes that a learning experience. Can’t figure out the jigsaw puzzle? Your friend doesn’t want to play today? For a minute at the park you lose track of your mom? A little bit of cortisol squirts out, and your brain is in top-notch condition to learn from what’s going on. And when those problems get resolved—I fit the last piece in the puzzle! Oh, there’s my mom!—that mini-adrenaline-rushy feeling of accomplishment you feel is your brain saying, “Hey, job well done!”

The problem comes when you feel that stress all the time, or in large doses. Think what it’d be like to have an adrenaline rush all the time, even when you’re just trying to sit and read a book—it’d be impossible to pay attention to anything. When you’re experiencing chronic fear, anxiety, frustration, worries, or uncertainty, your brain is bathing in a sea of cortisol, and that actually shuts down the learning process. Whether it’s kids picking on you at school every day, or never knowing where your next meal is coming from, or all the adults in your life yelling at you every time you do anything at all, your brain fills up with cortisol, and learning and development go down the tubes.

One of the many reasons “at-risk” children have such a hard time in school is the constant flood of stress hormones in their brains. Think of high school kids who are taking care of younger siblings, or working a full-time job at night, or coping with fights at home, or any of a thousand other chronic stresses. Why can’t they learn algebra? Why don’t they respond normally to discipline practices? Cortisol is shutting down their ability to learn. The same can be true for kids on the receiving end of repeated bullying, or kids with unresolved developmental delays, or even just particularly sensitive children experiencing “normal” life. No matter how good your teaching practices are, children going through chronic stress are being prevented from learning normally by brain chemistry, and if you want them to learn then the complicated task stress-reduction is a prerequisite.

On a more upbeat note, there’s a lot that the parents of young children can do to make sure their children are experiencing beneficial levels of stress. Your 6-month-old is can’t quite reach a toy? Don’t hand it to him; let him stretch for it. Your 2½-year-old is getting frustrated with a jigsaw puzzle? Don’t show her where the piece goes; just say, “You’ve almost got it! Keep going!” Your 5-year-old had an argument with his best friend? Don’t tell him how to resolve it; acknowledge his frustration and help him brainstorm his own solutions. Those little, everyday, normal stresses are good for the brain!

It’s important to remember that different children respond differently to different stresses—an incident that one child shrugs off will weigh on another for weeks. And there’s no universal guide to what the precisely optimal stress level is—that’s different for different children as well. But if you remember that big chronic stress is bad and small occasional stress is good, you’ll be well on the way.

* * *

Looking for ways to lower or raise stress in your child’s life—or in your own? I can help!

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