Stress Affects Kids’ Health Too – Maybe All their Lives

Last updated on August 29th, 2015 at 03:00 pm

Throughout my studies in public health I am constantly being introduced to new and interesting perspectives on the health of communities, as well as all the influences that can undermine our well-being. Right now I am taking a course on the behavioral and biological impacts of stress. Stress is integrally related to our health – not just affecting our mood or our sleep – but working at the basic level of our tissues and cells to advance early negative processes that lead to heart disease, or impair our immune systems.

And stress isn’t just an element in the adult world. Children increasingly suffer stress and stress-related disorders as well. The National Institute of Mental Health, part of the government’s National Institutes of Health, reports that 11% of teens have experienced depression at some time in their life to date, and studies have shown similar rates of anxiety disorders among youth. Furthermore, stress in childhood – particularly extreme levels related to neglect, abuse and ongoing family dysfunction – appears to have longer-term health effects. A report from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), The Effects of Childhood Stress on Health Across the Lifespan, highlights a range of negative outcomes from “toxic stress” such as alterations in brain development, impaired learning and memory, and immune system issues in later life.

Even everyday stresses that result from a competitive and complex society have been shown to adversely impact health, both of people and of animals such as baboons. An excellent National Geographic video – Stress, Portrait of a Killer – outlines how dealing with long-term challenges and having a low position in society (human or baboon) can undermine health. The video is about an hour long, but it’s well worth watching with a – relaxing – hot drink.

So what about kids? Do they experience everyday or ongoing stress? Personally, I’ve seen it with my son. In second grade he experienced a period of bullying and wasn’t enjoying school. It took us some time to realize the extent of his stress and anxiety but he was exhibiting some of the classic signs, such as detachment, crying spells, and self-comfort such as rocking. Click here for more on stress and the possible signs in young children. Now in 5th grade he’s talking about feeling stressed from all the homework he’s getting – and I can see how it is sometimes affecting his mood and sleep. In fact our experience is consistent with findings from a national Kid’s Health poll of 9-13 year-olds that showed the top childhood stressors to be “grades, school, and homework (36%); family (32%); and friends, peers, gossip, and teasing (21%)”.

Thankfully, both adults and children can learn to manage or reduce their stress levels – with a variety of relaxation approaches available to try – from mindfulness, to yoga, to massage and deep-breathing exercises.  In my next post I will review a resource for practicing a common stress-reduction technique “progressive muscle relaxation,” created just for kids.

About the Author

Audra is an experienced pharmaceutical marketing professional, aspiring writer, and mother of Elliott, a high-spirited fourteen-year old boy. Frequently tired but never bored, she has a strong interest in public health fostered by numerous years implementing global diabetes education programs as well as by her fourteen-year crazy (wild? amazing?) adventure in parenting. She recently earned a Masters in Public Health to augment her expertise in health policy and health promotion. Audra is a member of the PedSafe Team

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2 Responses to “Stress Affects Kids’ Health Too – Maybe All their Lives”

  1. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when I was 17 and have dealt with depression all my life, seriously for as long as I can remember. Strange for a child being as depressed as I was so young but I’m doing everything in my power to ensure that my two children are happy, healthy and spoiled rotten. They deserve all the love I so craved when I was young. (Boy was that depressing!)

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