Marcus regularly blogs at psysci, a psychology, science blog that examines the latest research and explains how findings can impact and improve people’s lives.
In recent years, psychologists have given increasing attention to the idea of reducing childhood stress. Not only does mounting evidence support the idea that childhood stress leads to decreased positive health outcomes later in life, but it is also widely held that early efforts to decrease childhood stress are more economically efficient than later interventions: a little attention to stress in childhood goes a long way in adulthood.
As with all things in childhood, there are different stressors to watch for at different ages. Here are six ways to lower childhood stress, given in roughly chronological order:
1. Even Foetuses Feel Stress
Many people are surprised to learn the sensory capabilities of foetuses. It’s important for couples who are pregnant (both mother and father) to devote adequate time and attention to their actions during pregnancy.
The simplest explanation is that while in the womb, a child is preparing its body for the conditions that it expects to see in the real world, using the mother’s hormonal balance as a model. If it receives a lot of food, it expects food to be plentiful. If it receives a lot of stress hormones via the amniotic fluid, it expects a dangerous and insecure environment. Parents are well-served to live during pregnancy according to the real life conditions they want for their child.
2. Give Infants a Feeling of Secure Attachment
Psychological stress in adulthood is theorized to stem in part from the pattern of attachment one develops in childhood. Developmental psychologists have used clinical research with children to develop a theory of four attachment styles: secure, anxious-preoccupied, dismissive-avoidant, and fearful-avoidant.
While this rich theory has a lot to offer parents, the major takeaway is that the best outcomes later in life are seen from parent-child relationships where the toddler felt able to leave the arms of the mother and explore the world around them, secure in the knowledge that a loving, caring presence would be consistently available upon their return.
3. Keep It Quiet
Children at certain ages are particularly susceptible to noise. Noise can be something obvious, like planes or subway cars frequently passing by, but it can also be things that are so nonobvious to even be inaudible. Evolutionarily, a child’s sense of hearing is one of the primary ways they would have been able to sense environmental dangers in prehistoric times, as visual ability takes more time to fully develop, so children can have particularly strong stress reactions to noise.
The effects of ‘noxious sound’ can be cumulative, leading to ear damage and stress in later childhood and adolescence. Parents can take drastic steps like finding a quiet place to live, but there are also simple soundproofing techniques to help provide the soothing silence that gives children a feeling of safety and security.
4. Help Children Develop Emotional Literacy
Parents are often oblivious at first to the ways in which stress can manifest for children. Frequent trips to the doctor or to the nurse’s office at school can indicate feelings of stress that the child is not yet able to express in words. Similarly, the desire (or legitimate physical need) to stay home sick can really mean a crippling stress or anxiety manifesting as upset stomach.
Parents can do a lot to increase their own awareness of how stress manifests in their children, and to help give their kids the words and the feeling of permission to express their vulnerable fears and anxieties. In childhood this can mean the difference between a mute temper tantrum and a frustrated comment, and the difference between a repressed anger and an open desire in adolescence.
5. Take Special Care with Physical Ailments
One minor thing that parents are rarely aware of is how difficult medical illness can be on children. Kids can be especially sensitive to having a medical condition, for various different reasons depending on age. In childhood, the idea of sickness or death can be so foreign that a brush in a hospital or clinic can be very fearful. At adolescent ages, the experience of being watched, poked, and prodded can feel like an invasion of privacy that makes a young adult feel that all of their shortcomings are painfully on display.
The biggest things parents can do for children with medical conditions at any age is to normalize the situation, be consistently present and sensitive, and help the child find peer support.
6. Lowering Parent Stress Lowers Child Stress
Though they may never let on, kids are incredibly perceptive of the emotional state of their parents. Unfortunately, though, as with most of the other items on this list, it may not be until the child is an adult that they are aware of how their relationship with their parent manifests in their own life. Even well into adulthood, the habits and proclivities of the parents can produce psychodynamic conflict.
The ideal situation is for parents to live a life truly free from stress. In reality, though, this is not so easy, and parents often must become actors putting on a show of strength and positivity for their children. However, this doesn’t mean parents shouldn’t show any emotion, for two reasons. One, children are much more able to see through the charade than most parents realize, regardless of their age. And two, it is important that parents model emotional maturity and healthy coping strategies to their children.
All parents are all naturally motivated to provide their children the most loving, happy, stress-free environment possible. It’s impossible to avoid all of the possible stressors a child can experience: life will always get in the way of even the best-laid parenting plans.
For parents, the goal should not be perfection, but rather to have the knowledge and sensitivity that enables you to become aware of what stress your child may feel, and to help as best you can.