Children Under Stress
I recently attended the conference ‘The Developing Brain Meets the 21st Century: Connecting or Disconnecting?’ presented by Jane M. Healy, PhD. Healy presented information about the impact of our current culture on brain development and learning problems. “For a culture skilled in giving lip service to the importance of achievement and brainpower, we are remarkably careless with the brains of our children.” (Different Learners, 2010).
Healy states that stress effects brain development and she classifies stress in two different ways. Bad stress is anything that is threatening, uncontrollable, and chronic, while good stress is characterized as pertaining to interest, choice, and control. Bad stress affects the hippocampus or memory area of the brain as well as the emotional centers and attention. Stress can also affect the immune system. Additionally stress can contribute to what Healy describes as ‘learned helplessness.’ For instance, if one is placed in icy cold water and can’t escape, eventually he/she will stop trying and sink. For a child who can’t escape bad stress, he/she may eventually stop trying. This can be suggestive of a child who begins to develop a learning disorder or have significant difficulty with attention and/or behavior.
What was most interesting to me was what I learned about the amount of stress many children are under and how this impacts their brains and their ability to learn. For instance, common sources of stress for children today include:
- Inappropriate pressure in regards to demands of academics and sports
- Stressed-out parents
- Peer problems such as bullying
- Untreated learning problems
- Family and personal stressors
- Threats to physical or emotional safety
- Sensory assaults such as noise, family chaos, overscheduling, and visual effects
- Lack of sleep, which can mimic ADHD
- Media – both content and form
- Inadequate physical exercise
- Separation from the natural world
- Lack of free, unprogrammed play
As I began to look at this list, I reflected on some common sources of stress for children are beneficial or even essential to raising an intelligent, well-rounded child. For instance, there is pressure to have children involved in many activities and the pressure to excel often begins at a very young age. It’s not uncommon for a child to have swimming lessons, a soccer game, and a school function all in the same week. This doesn’t even account for his/her attendance at the activities of his/her siblings. While it can be beneficial for children to socialize and participate in extracurricular activities, it is important to maintain a balance of free play and to be cautious of the amount of pressure placed on the child to excel and achieve within the activity. It is also important for the parent to be aware of his/her own stress as the demands to accommodate getting each child to his/her activity or event can be intense. According to Healy, “. . . 33% of adults are stressed to the point it’s endangering their physical health.” It is often easy for the child to sense the increased tension and chaos in the home and become increasingly stressed himself/herself.
Another potentially stressful experience that can accompany a family’s busy schedule is car rides. For instance, the electronic billboards that can be encountered several times in the course of a 5-10 minute car ride can stress our brain. The visual effects of the bright flashing lights force our brains to look and respond to the stimulus. Additionally, many vehicles are now equipped with DVD players and high quality sound systems. The intensity of the visual display and high volume from these can add stress within a car already filled with noise from its passengers. While our culture often appears rich in opportunity and choices, the stress that often accompanies it can have damaging effects. For instance, most every household today has at least one television, although multiple televisions in the home can be found in the rooms of children. Children who watch television prior to bed are at risk from the blue light projected from the television which overalerts the nervous system. Thus, the child may be stressed not only from the television, but also from difficulty sleeping. Furthermore, the content of video games and television programs can increase stress as a lot of the media today depicts what Healy labels a ‘mean world syndrome’ where someone is always out to get you. Cartoons can even be violent and increase arousal states, thus contributing to stress.
What may be most alarming about the stress our children are under is its impact on infants. Consider our cultures marketing strategies directed at infants at critical developmental stages. Most infant toys now possess some way to activate lights and sounds. There are video games geared towards infants as young as six months, encouraging them to watch the television screen for animation and noise. The impact of this early overstimulation on a developing brain is concerning. Infants may be missing out on important interaction and development of cause and effect when these toys and electronics do everything on their own without the need for human input. So, how do we counteract a culture that contributes to stress on our children’s brains? Try some of these strategies to begin making your home what Healy describes as a “Learning- Power Home”
- Set, negotiate and enforce limits regarding media such as television, video games, or personal music players .
- Remember the importance of physical activity for building brains.
- Practice healthy sleep habits.
- Encourage language and listening by talking with your child about his day and setting goals for good things that might happen the next day.
- Practice joint problem-solving by facilitating the child’s identification of the problem as formulated by words, deciding on the plan such as reading the instructions and assembling the materials, following through and then evaluating the outcome for any potential gains from the experience.
- Encourage nature by getting children outdoors, participating in free play.
- Ensure proper nutrition and a well- balanced diet.
- Model, teach and practice self-regulation.
- Prioritize the amount and frequency of involvement in extracurricular activities.
- Eliminate over-stimulating toys that hinder appropriate brain development.
For more information or reading on this topic, check out Jane Healy’s books.
Healy, J. H. (2010). Different Learners. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Healy, J. H. (1999). Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children’s Minds. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Healy, J. H. (1990). Endangered Minds: Why Children Don’t Think and What We Can Do About It. New York: Simon & Schuster.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker
Licensed Independent Mental Health Practitioner
- Jody Johnson, LICSW, LIMHP, began working at Wholeness Healing Center as a therapist in 2007. Jody graduated from the University of Nebraska at Omaha with her Masters in Social Work. She received her bachelor degree in Social Work from the University of Nebraska at Kearney.
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