Childhood is changing and we'd better start to address it soon.
Ongoing research on kids' psychological development suggests that kids who are excessively withdrawn, or hyper-reactive, or act out too much are often sending a signal that their stress levels are too high. There is also a growing amount of research suggesting that kids have much higher levels of physiological stress than they did a generation ago and the adults in their lives need to start recognizing when children's problematic behaviours are due to these high stress levels.
Many perceive childhood as a time of simplicity and play. However, children show stress in complex ways that can represent serious signs of anxiety or a nervous system that is overloaded.
Understanding that burden requires us to think of child stress differently than adult stress. Kids don't have to deal with the pressures of work, money and marriage. So how can a five-year-old be stressed?
Noisy streets bustling with traffic in an increasingly urbanized society or the incessant buzzing and flickering of a fluorescent bulb overhead or on a screen in front of them can contribute to our kids' daily stress levels.
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"Unfortunately, the stress we deal with during the day <a href="http://www.doctoroz.com/videos/5-most-common-stress-dreams">tends to follow us to bed at night and plays out in our dreams</a>," Lauri Quinn Loewenberg, author of <em>Dream On It -- Unlock Your Dreams, Change Your Life</em>, wrote for DoctorOz.com. Maybe you don't realize you're burning the candle at both ends until that dream comes back where you miss your bus or your house is on fire, two of the five most common stress dreams, according to Loewenberg. However, these dreams might help you pinpoint what exactly is stressing you out -- and can <a href="http://www.fitnessmagazine.com/health/stress-relief/stress-busters/signs-of-stress/?page=5">help you work through why you're feeling that way</a>, Fitness magazine reports.
That "I could use a massage" feeling isn't just about a brief oasis from the real (read: stressful) world. Turns out, <a href="http://www.womansday.com/health-fitness/stress-management/9-surprising-symptoms-of-stress-104938">stress causes us to tense our muscles</a> and can even trigger muscle spasms, leaving us in some serious pain, <em>Woman's Day</em> reported.
Speaking of spasms -- ever had a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/31/why-do-my-eyelids-twitch_n_1844041.html">funny eye twitch</a>? Stress could be to blame. While there's not exactly hard evidence to prove it, many people who complain of a twitch also say they're tired or stressed.
A number of people grind their teeth in their sleep -- or "chew over the day's stressors," Debbie Mandel, author of A<em>ddicted to Stress: A Woman’s 7-Step Program to Reclaim Joy and Spontaneity in Life</em>, told <em>Fitness</em>. Others may simply clench their jaw while awake and stressed, often without realizing it. But both can lead to pain -- and <a href="http://abcnews.go.com/Health/story?id=5661148&page=1#.ULeQxdPjmD0">grinding can even crack teeth</a>. Your dentist can tell you if there's visible damage and set you up with a mouth guard to prevent further stress-induced wear and tear.
Women may experience late or missed periods due to stress. Some may even experience a condition know as <a href="http://www.everydayhealth.com/pms/managing-stress-during-pms.aspx">secondary amenorrhea</a>, when the cycle seems to completely stop, according to Everyday Health. Other stressed women may find their periods continue on a regular schedule -- but feel far worse. Stress can make <a href="http://www.fitnessmagazine.com/health/stress-relief/stress-busters/signs-of-stress/?page=4">cramps up to twice as painful</a>, according to <em>Fitness</em>.
You've probably heard someone say stress is turning them gray -- but it turns out we're <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/18/gray-hair-stress-beauty-myths_n_1885646.html">more likely to <em>lose</em> hair when stressed</a>, HuffPost Style reported. However, if you are already genetically predisposed to going gray, traumatic events and periods of intense stress could speed up the process. The Mayo Clinic explains that stress can cause white blood cells to <a href="http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/stress-and-hair-loss/AN01442">attack the hair follicle</a> and stop growth, and it may also put hair follicles into a "resting phase," so hairs fall out during washing or combing. Others experience <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/31/trichotillomania-disorder-olivia-munn_n_1723757.html">trichotillomania</a> when stressed or anxious, which gives them an irresistible urge to pull out hair on the scalp or other areas, like eyebrows and eyelashes.
Stress can mess with your stomach in ways as simple as a bout of the butterflies. But it can also cause more serious reactions, including <a href="http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001292/">irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS</a>. While the link between stress and gastro problems is not entirely understood, it seems to <a href="http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001292/">make the intestines more sensitive and contract more</a>, according to the A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia.
Stress lowers our immune system, leaving us at risk for frequent colds. One study found that the people who reported high levels of stress were <a href="http://www.forbes.com/2010/05/17/stress-symptoms-health-forbes-woman-well-being-exercise_slide_3.html">twice as likely to catch a cold</a>. The stress hormone cortisol seems to turn down the volume on the body's inflammatory response, Health.com reported, to "free up energy" to fight off whatever the threat that's causing the stress. "Stressed people's immune cells become less sensitive to cortisol," Sheldon Cohen, Ph.D., the study's author and a professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, told Health.com. "They're unable to regulate the inflammatory response, and therefore, when they're exposed to a virus, they're more likely to develop a cold."
Using punishment and reward for kids who are overly disruptive and easily distracted doesn't work very well. In some cases, it even exacerbates the problem. Instead of trying to force children to behave according to the rules, we need to recognize these behaviours for what they are -- signs of an over-stretched nervous system.
The Milton & Ethel Harris Research Initiative (MEHRI) at York University has developed an approach to improving childhood development based on tapping into kids' ability to manage their own stress. The process, called self-regulation, is being implemented in a number of B.C. school districts and will soon launch in Ontario schools and roll out in other jurisdictions across the country in stages.
In its simplest terms, self-regulation teaches kids to deal with being over-stressed by recognizing the signs and teaching them to reduce their physiological stress, gain control of their emotions, stay calm and alert. It refers to how efficiently and effectively a child deals with stress and then recovers.
This is critical because problems with self-regulation are a predictor of internalizing problems, anti-social behaviour and susceptibility to drug use later in life. Studies have also tied poor self-regulation to a wide range of issues, including obesity, risky behaviour and attentional problems.
The better kids self-regulate, the better they can control impulses or delay gratification, and focus on learning.
And let's not forget about those who care for the child. Teaching successful self-regulation strategies to children can also lead to a dramatic drop in parental, caregiver and teacher stress, which, in turn, will benefit the child too.
The first step is identifying stressors, whether physiological, emotional, environmental, cognitive or social. Perhaps a child needs a quiet library space at the back of the classroom to calm down or a learning space with fewer distractions.
If a child tends to wake up feeling irritable, exercises such as stretching, push-ups or star jumps and breathing exercises and yoga can improve their mood while teaching them control. But kids need to see these activities as fun. Making them the leaders of their own learning is a powerful tool that isn't used enough.
Play can also be a big part of this method. When kids lead playtime based on their interests, they become focused and tune into what their playmates are thinking as they decide what to build, what story to tell or what game to play. Play fosters connections between people, objects and ideas.
MEHRI's interest in self-regulation arose from their research into treatment options for autism, a condition that impairs social interaction, communication and leads to restricted, repetitive behaviour patterns.
A child with autism will often shut down under too much stress and become unable to engage with others. The MEHRI team of scientists and clinicians is exploring ways to mitigate the severity of the disorder by reducing the downstream effects of poor self-regulation, allowing for more self-control and social interaction.
Using these strategies at home and in the public school system means children with autism will have strategies to cope in different settings, even in classrooms full of potential distractions. The research also suggests that what works to reduce the stressors for children with autism can work for all children. And that all children today do indeed need help with far too many stressors in their lives.
Our ability to reach as many kids as possible, teaching them the skills to manage their stress, can make all the difference in their future success.