Your Baby’s Brain – Part 2 of 3: Stress and Your Child!

Do you ever worry about your child’s levels of stress?

Today, in this second in a three-part series, we are going to look at how three different kinds of stress can affect your child and the important role that you as the parent play in helping them to manage that stress.

Researchers at the Harvard Center on the Developing Child have divided stress into three groups: positive, tolerable, and toxic stress.

Let’s start with Positive Stress:

Positive stress represents the normal feelings of anxiety that comes with stepping into new experiences. Learning to face these positive stresses can help a child to grow and become strong in all good ways. Examples of positive stress can include

  • New sleeping arrangements
  • A new sibling  
  • First times away from parents 
  • First day of school 
  • Making new friends
  • Moving (are any readers from the military community?)

All children experience some or most of these stressful situations. With the help of a parent or a reliable adult, such as a teacher or daycare provider, these experiences can encourage a child to become confident with new situations. Every positive experience of facing a good kind of stress can set a child up for even more success with future challenges.

The next stress is identified as Tolerable Stress.

Tolerable stress represents the painful things that we wish wouldn’t happen, such as

  • A serious illness
  • A natural disaster
  • The death of someone close, and
  • Even severe situations such as war and refugee experiences can be made less stressful by the strong presence of an adult who loves the child and takes care of their needs

We can help our little ones, and bigger ones too, to manage this category of stress by being a consistent, supportive, and loving presence that they can feel confident will always be there – as much as is in your power.

Good support during a tolerable stress can offer an internal strength to your child and help them to manage the loss or the pain much better than you might imagine. The key thing is a present, supportive, loving adult that they can rely on.

The last stress identified is a pretty awful one. So many children suffer from these experiences and it is heartbreaking.

Toxic Stress

Toxic stress is represented by terrible experiences in a child’s life that are traumatic and for which they have little or no protection, support, or predictable love from their adult.

These stresses would include:

  • Violence,
  • Abuse, and surprisingly, the largest representation in the area of abuse is
  • Neglect: physical and emotional.

We all start out wanting the best for our children and hope that their lives will be nothing but lovely, but the reality is that most of us – old and young – experience genuine stress at some point in our lives. Some individuals experience situations that are much more severe than others.

When these events are experienced without the buffer of a caring and reliable adult, the stress responses of heightened anxiety and fear can develop into becoming the normal state of being. This is the most harmful thing to happen in a little one’s life and we now know that the consequences of prolonged states of fear and anxiety can last well into much later, even senior, years.

Ok, now we’ve identified three kinds of stress and I bet most readers are feeling a little anxious!

I have two things to offer you that will help you to feel better.

First, in part one of this series, we talked about a small child’s brain gathering experiences at a rate of 1 million synaptic connections per second. Do you remember when I said, if something bad happens, “DON’T PANIC”?

The reason for not panicking is because around age three, the brain starts to allow connections that are not regularly used to weaken and even fall away. So, if your little one has a pretty good life, those good connections are the ones that will be kept and made stronger and the others connections captured in the indiscriminate gathering of information with fall away.

Here is the second thing that is really important for you to know:

Stress that causes damage is not measured so much by what happened, as it is by how it was processed.

In other words, if your child has a traumatic experience, your love and support, your commiserations, and your understanding and care, will greatly lessen the impact of the stressful situation on their inner being. What could have been horrendously traumatic has the potential to be reduced to a bad experience which they journeyed with a reliable adult – mom, dad, or someone else, to help them.

All of this information about stress needs to be placed within the context of individuality: each person, parent and child will respond uniquely even to very similar situations. The best thing for you to know is that, whatever happens, you as the parent, or adult, have the power to make a difference in how your child experiences and process that event.

Phew! Right?

So here we go: when your child experiences stress of any kind, the critical factors are:

  • Love: That they are loved with as much reassurance as it takes in that moment and in the hours, days, or weeks to follow.
  • Safety: That there is a safe place for them to be, physically, if needed, and psychologically and emotionally as well.
  • Relational Security: Children need to know that their grownup is reliable, available, and not going anywhere, especially when there is stress in their lives.

Next time: In part 3 of 3, I want to share with you the science of nature versus nurture and how you can make the very best of your baby’s nature with how you nurture.

In the meantime, here is a link to a video on stress, put out by the Alberta Family Wellness Initiative. This is a wonderful group committed to spreading the news of giving a healthy start to a child’s life. Knowledge is power; when you as a parent know concretely how to give the best to your child, you can genuinely hope for an emotionally healthy outcome.

I believe that this is important information that should be available to all parents. Would you consider sharing this series on your social media?

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