Stress and Brain Development

As adults, stress causes havoc on the body and the brain. So, it is unsurprising that when children undergo stress in their lives, it affects their brain development. The brain is the central organ of stress and we need to ensure our children are being taken care of. 

High levels of stress in early childhood can influence brain development and have short and long term influences, especially when it comes to emotions and learning. When young children are faced with overwhelming amounts of stress, without supportive adult relationships to help them cope, the results can be extremely damaging. According to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, there are three types of stress: positive, tolerable, and toxic. 

Positive stress response is a normal and healthy part of development, this might be starting a new school, or trying something new. This type of stress is essential and children will be able to navigate this type of stress with positive outcomes. 

Tolerable stress response is more severe, this might be the loss of a loved one or a traumatic injury. This type of stress can cause damage to development, but the brain and other organs can recover when supportive adults are there to help them navigate and find healthy coping mechanisms. 

Toxic stress response is when a child experiences prolonged adversity without any adult support. This could relate to abuse, a caregiver with substance abuse or mental health issues, or burdens of economic hardship. This can disrupt the development of the brain and other organs and increase the risk of developing stress related diseases. 

Toxic stress during early childhood can affect the developing brain circuits and hormonal system, which can lead to poor control over a child’s stress response system. As a result, children can become angry or threatened even when there is no cause to feel that way, or they can experience excessive anxiety long after a threat has passed. 

Knowing this, our message of balance is extremely important. It is not just our opinion. Research shows that children need balance in their lives, even more than adults do, because developing brains are not equipped to deal with high levels of stress. 

Here are some tips to help your child cope with stress. Many of these techniques can grow with children, so as they develop they can have the mechanisms to cope with stress. These strategies can also be adapted to help support students in your classroom!

1. Exercise: Exercise is one of the best stress relievers there is. Exercising can ease your mind from the things that are causing stress. It also releases endorphins into our bodies, which makes us feel good. Make time to exercise as a family. Take a walk, run, hike, ride bikes, or play sports.

2. Unplug from technology: Technology is a wonderful tool, however research has shown that too much technology use can have a detrimental effect on children. Restricting or taking away technology can be stressful too, so we suggest coming up with a plan with your family. Sit and have a conversation with your children, make rules together, and have technology free zones and times in the house. Most importantly, model model model for your child. 

3. Spend time with family: Children LOVE spending time with their family. We hear how happy they are when they tell us all about “Family Night” at school. Play board games with them, color, paint, or make art with them, practice throwing the ball, read books, or just sit and listen to them. Spending quality time with you, will reduce their stress and you will make memories they will remember for a lifetime.

4. Spend time in nature: There is something about being in nature that brings (even the most city lover like Jen) peace. Finding a park, trail, mountain, or body of water, and spending time in the sun is so relaxing and peaceful. Going into nature with your children is a wonderful way to spend quality time with them, unplug, and destress. 

5. Let them play: Today’s Children often have a lot to do after after a long school day. After 8 hours of school, many children have after-school activities, plus reading, and homework, they are often on the go for many hours a day. Giving them time to play and relax in an unscheduled or unplanned way will let them just be kids and relax. 

6. Mindfulness: Teaching children to practice mindfulness will give them skills to develop awareness of inner and outer experiences that can help them better understand their emotions. Start off simple and focus on what is happening “right now.” Be grateful and recognize positive things in the moment. Teach children breathing exercises or meditation

7. Model Stress Management: Children learn the most from the adults in their lives. If you model stress management techniques, they will learn from you. Bring balance into your life, and your child will follow.