We want our children to be happy, but each generation seems to be exposed to greater amounts of stress at a younger and younger age. Things like fewer carefree recess periods at school, more cyberbullying, and the increased need to keep up with the Joneses are just a few things creating more stress in our children.
The child and adolescent brain goes through significant changes during development, first growing larger and then being “pruned back” to fine tune and streamline things, similar to how we allow rose bushes to grow and then we thin them out to keep the most desired and beneficial parts of the plant.
During this period of brain maturation, stress can lead to more psychological and physiological vulnerabilities, leading to neurobehavioral changes. Development is a crucial time that can affect the direction the brain will go, similar to how we can easily influence the direction a tree leans while growing, as opposed to changing the direction of a tree once it is fully grown.
When exposed to significant or long-term stress, the adolescent brain shows growth in areas that play roles in things like anxiety and depression, and shrinkage in other areas. Along with the structural volumetric changes going on in the brain, chemical/hormonal changes are occurring in the brain as well. Stress has been shown to increase hormonal responses, which children are more sensitive to compared to adults. This can lead to changes in blood sugar, weight, sleep pattern, etc., which can further weaken the defenses against stress.
The long-term effects of these changes are that it predisposes the child to develop depression, anxiety disorders and even psychotic symptoms as they grow older, and it can also eventually lead to immune system compromise. Stress is unavoidable, of course, and some children get exposed to stress that many of us can only imagine: separation from parents, witnessing violence and death, abuse, severe poverty and intractable medical issues.
The good news is that research shows there are ways to minimize the consequences and long-term effects of stress. Providing enriching environments to offset the stress has been shown to decrease hormonal stress reactivity. For example, in children who have been separated from their family (particularly mothers or the main caretakers), providing them with a more spacious living environment and having more activities available to occupy their interests led to reduced stress reactivity and increased cognitive abilities compared to those separated from family but not given similar better opportunities. Also, children given the opportunity for ample social interactions prior to a stressor have a better ability to resist the impacts of stress and/or to bounce back faster.
If getting psychiatric medical treatment is not an option, then consider early and varied socialization experiences and providing a clean, calm and positive thought-provoking environment for our children to protect them against the impact of stress on their fragile brains.
By // Dr. Yukari Kawamoto, M.D.
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