Chronic stress in childhood is a major concern for parents everywhere. Whether your child is overcoming a problem at school or dealing with a recent trauma, it’s important for parents to find ways to relieve stress where they can. That’s why understanding chronic stress is just as important as finding ways to ease it.
The Different Types of Stress in Childhood
According to information from the Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University, there are three types of stress that children experience: positive stress response, tolerable stress response and toxic stress response. The most dangerous type is toxic stress.
Positive stress is the body’s reaction to typical situations like visiting a dentist’s office for a procedure or the first day of school. This is a natural reaction and typically isn’t harmful to a child as long as caregivers or adults provide support.
Tolerable stress results from larger stressors like a death in the family, exposure to a natural disaster (hurricanes, a tornado or maybe even a home fire) or even being diagnosed with a major illness or injury. Again, as long as the child receives loving support, the body can cope with the stressful situation.
Toxic stress is just as the name defines…toxic to a child’s development. And, according to Harvard University, this type of stress response is the result of abuse, mental illness in the family, a major economic hardship and an environment where the child witnesses violence. With these events, as long as the child receives support from a caregiver, toxic stress will be less likely to cause lifelong repercussions. But if the child does not have a strong support system and is left to manage these stressors alone, toxic stress can result in health issues later in life.
Children who endure toxic stress are at risk for mental health issues and physical health complications. Harvard University notes that: “The more adverse experiences in childhood, the greater the likelihood of developmental delays and later health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, substance abuse, and depression.”
And, according to an article on Psychology Today, divorce also may be a cause of toxic stress in children—especially with divorces that are not amicable. The article points out that “…during lengthy periods where parents are at war with each other, children and teens often experience chronic stress and some report feelings of pressure from one or both parents to choose a side.”
How to Help Chronic Stress in Childhood
While parents or caregivers might not be able to completely prevent a stressful situation from impacting a child—even toxic stressors—they can offer support and provide children with a positive and nurturing sanctuary. Schools and school districts also may provide social and emotional learning programs to help children cope and positively manage their stress.
SEL programs are vast, and many teach children relaxation techniques in a calm and nurturing environment. Yoga, meditation and mindfulness programs are ideal SEL-based programs for children who may be exposed to stressors that induce a toxic stress response.
Meditation-based programs focus on relaxation techniques. These SEL programs are not based in any religion but encourage children to manage their stress and anxiety. Like all SEL programs they also teach children ways to positively engage with others and to manage anger and emotions in a healthy manner.
Mindfulness SEL programs teach children how to live in the moment and focus on the present. These types of SEL programs help children step outside of the toxic moment and find peace and calm. Mindfulness may provide a coping mechanism and help children regain control of stress.
Programs that focus on the art of yoga also provide a calming refuge for children who may be caught in the midst of stressful situations. Many can be implemented in school or after school, and yoga programs also integrate mindfulness into their practice. These programs also help teach children ways to make healthy decisions for the body and the mind.
While mindfulness, meditation and yoga practices are ideal SEL programs to help teach children ways to combat and cope with stress responses, all SEL programs may be beneficial. The goal of any SEL program is to provide children with the fundamental knowledge to self-regulate their emotional responses, to be more aware of the emotions and feelings of others and to make healthy decisions for their lives…and their bodies. For children who have been exposed—or who are continually exposed—to toxic stress, SEL programs help pave the way for recovering from and regulating the stressors that impact their lives, emotional wellbeing and their physical health.