Stress and its effects on children


Young children are highly impressionable. When it comes to learning to speak and walk, read and write, that’s a good thing. But unfortunately, the effects of living with long-term stress in childhood also makes a lasting impression on health and wellness, and the results are not nearly so good.

Why Is Stress Harmful to Children?

When you experience a stressful situation, it triggers certain reactions in your body. Your muscles tense, your heart rate increases, you breathe harder, your blood pressure increases and stress hormones course through your body.

In a short-term situation, these bodily reactions are a good thing. They help you react to the emergency at hand. However, when stress becomes chronic and the body remains in this high-alert state, health problems arise. For example, when facing danger, tensed muscles help protect the body from injury, but continually tense muscles can trigger migraines.

Children, as well, experience physical reactions to stress. Exposure to negative situations triggers the release of stress hormones in their bodies, as well as increased blood pressure, elevated heart rate and other such responses. The imprint of these physical reactions can linger for a lifetime, for if chronic stress is rough on a fully grown adult, it certainly has the potential to wreak havoc on the developing mind and body of a young child.

What Long-Term Effects Can Early Stress Have?

Research shows that the physical changes that a young body undergoes while living with chronic stress often follow children into adulthood. A negative living environment during the early years can lead problems with the cardiovascular system, such as high blood pressure and heart disease. Childhood stress has also been linked to obesity in adulthood, and with obesity comes other problems, such as diabetes and osteoarthritis.

Not all of the lifelong effects of early stress are physical. Studies are also showing that a stressful growing environment can increase the likelihood of behavior problems and stunt emotional maturity. Addiction, too, can have its roots in childhood fear and trauma.

Is All Childhood Stress Harmful?

Like adults, children experience everyday stress. Growing up can be challenging, and kids need to learn how to do new things and navigate the world. These lessons can be stressful, but children can normally handle that type of stress and bounce back from it.

Chronic stress is different. The type of stress that leads to long-term negative health issues is typically the result of exposure to trauma. It can be trauma inflicted directly on a child, such as physical abuse, emotional abuse or neglect. The trauma can also caused by a prevailing factor in the child’s environment, such as domestic abuse inflicted on a parent.

Although the type of stress makes a difference in outcome, a child’s age does not have a significant effect. The common belief that young children do not absorb the effects of chronic stress until after the preschool years is unfounded. Not only are pre-verbal children, including infants, susceptible to the effects of a caustic environment, but even in-utero babies are negatively affected by maternal stress.

Physical, behavioral and emotional issues affect more than just the person at hand. They also take a toll on public health and spending, making the prevention of chronic childhood stress an important societal issue. If we want to have a healthier future as a nation, we must start now to protect the youngest and most vulnerable among us.