How does stress affect children development


"The early years present us with a window of opportunity to enhance development; we also need be aware of times of vulnerability when the brain is affected by adverse experiences." (Landy, 2009, p.29) This is a passage taken out from Landy, "Pathway to Competence; encouraging social and emotional development in young children." From her book, we see evidence of how children can be influenced through different experiences. Stress for instance, can have significant adverse effects on how children develop whether physically, mentally and socially. Children display changes in their physical well-being when under stress such as, getting sick frequently, and weak immune systems. Illness in children due to weak immune system impacts the mental developmental stage as children experience high levels of stress affected by trauma and abuse that influences their brain in dramatic ways. As the child's brain experiences dramatic changes, it also affects the social developmental stages and plays an impact on the child's behaviour. We often see children who are abused at home would normally exhibit peculiar behaviours that would affect them negatively with their social relationship. These developmental stages are interrelated with each other; usually interference in one area would frequently mean delays with the others. Hence it is important to provide a nurturing environment that promotes balance with all stages of development.

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How does stress has adverse effects with children physically? "Stress is the physiological and psychological responses to perceived threat." (Weiten, 2004, p.529). Stress is often times related to bad experience; this is the general public assumption. The fact is that stress can be good or bad. "The body response to stress by pumping the heart faster to increase blood flow to our muscles so we have better strength, bronchioles in the lungs are dilated so we can breathe better, pupils are dilated so we see better..." (Sympathetic nervous system, 2010). Stress in a positive aspect normally puts children in a stage of alertness, which can help them focus. When children are focused, they can learn and they will be better at retaining information, they will have appropriate responses; all in all, stress can be a good thing as it leads to positive brain development. Prolonged exposure to stress however will also have critical undesirable effects on children and their brain. "Stress response includes reducing peristalsis movement in the gastrointestinal tract, decreased urine secretion and triggered releases of the hormones cortisol and adrenaline." (Gould, 2006, p. 218). Adrenaline and cortisol both play an important role in stress physiology. "Adrenaline and cortisol suppressed immune system, additionally; cortisol also suppressed physical growth and affects many aspects of brain activities, including memory and emotion." (Victor G. Carrion, Carl F. Weems, and Allan L. Reiss, 2007) Due to the prolonged exposure of stress, children can get sick frequently from all sort of infection due to suppressed immune system; unable to heal properly due to malnourishment and delay or undergrowth from excessive adrenaline and cortisol hormones. These hormones cause children's brain to under develop leading to their physical development being delayed. Positive stress in children's physical development will lead to healthy overall development of the child.

"Stress in early development can either have positive effects or be extremely destructive of brain organization and development." (Landy, 2009) The structural organization of the brain from early childhood helps shape and defines a person. According to Doctor Perry, in his article regarding traumatized children, "children reflect the world in which they are raised. If that world is characterized by threat, chaos, unpredictability, fear and trauma, the brain will reflect that by altering the development of the neural systems involved in the stress and fear response." (Perry, 2000, p48-51) As mentioned above, stress response from our body triggers the release of the hormone cortisol. " The prolong secretion of the hormone cortisol can affect the cells activity in our body; which mean children who are under stress constantly are at higher risk of developing genetic disorder, both mental and physical." (Landy, 2009) The brain consists of many different circuits and pathways of neurons connected to each other; it can be extremely sensitive to any disturbance. "Long term stress can rewire the brain, leaving affected individual more vulnerable to anxiety and depression." (Smith, Gill, & Segal, 2009) Extended period of stress can cause part of the brains to weaken, for example, "the hippocampus in the limbic system, which is an area of the brain that is responsible for memory and information processing, can become smaller." (Smith, Gill, & Segal, 2009) There are cases of abused children who have limbic system abnormalities; "Research has shown that abused children or children who are suffered from post traumatic stress disorder have smaller hippocampus, due the degeneration of dendrites in the hippocampus area." (Lundback, 1997) Dendrites are the branches of neurons which are important for conducting information through all parts of the brain and body. Children who are under chronic stress may show signs of fatigue, loss of appetite, disinterest, short attention span, difficulty understanding or retaining information, and the list goes on. All these factors will reflect on children's brain their mental development; as they are unable to stabilize due to the stress in their environment that they are being exposed to.

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Negative emotions related to stress are often manifested through behaviours. Stress may cause disruptive behaviours such as problem with controlling impulses, which may end with children hurting themselves or hurting other children around them (Nemours Foundation, 1995-2010). Children who have no self control may not have a sense of time, may be prone to throwing temper tantrums, display aggression towards others. Stress may also causes changes in behaviour. "Children under stress change their behaviour and react by doing things that are not in keeping with their usual styles." (Nemours Foundation, 1995-2010) As mentioned aggressive children may take out their frustration on other children around them; behaviours with hitting, biting, kicking, pushing, forcefully taking other toys are normal in children who are suffering from stress. Children who are stressed may show disinterest towards many things; they lose focus in school, withdrawn and no interest of new friendship, unable to function independently, may exhibit fears and timid toward their surroundings and are unable to form social relationship. Other children may shun them for their aggressive behaviours, wary of their disruptive behaviours, or may not want to socialize with them because of the lack of responses. The lack of social support may eventually lead the children who also suffer from stress to depression. If a child leaps to depression the brain is unable to relay messages to different parts of the brain which in return leads the child to unable to process information to making positive decisions in the social aspect.

There are interventions available for children who suffer from stress. First and foremost, parents must realize there is something wrong with their children. "The presence of sensitive and responsive caregivers can help equip children with the tools needed to handle stress in a healthy manner." (Gunnar, Herrera, & Hostinar, 2009) Parents must be able to recognize the signs and symptoms of stress. Once a parent realizes their children are in need of help, parents should continue to provide care. "Care givers may help children meet basic care by making sure they are eating adequately, sleep, eliminates, and maintains personal cleanliness." (Valfre, 2009, p.142) Often time's parents or caregivers are the only people who can provide love and acceptance, no matter how peculiar the behaviours of the children may be. Each child is capable of doing something. Parents or care givers can help them find something to do; encourage them to think of ideas that help them reduce their stress. "Encourage young children to grow and to reach for higher levels of functions, to strive for more." (Valfre, 2009, p.143) Children who can actively contribute ideas can help them build confidence and reduce stress. Children who found something to help with their stress would feel that their situation is not so hopeless after all. "Encourage self care and independence help children grow and develop." (Nemours Foundation, 1995-2010) Parents and care givers should be there to listen, provide assistance when needed, and limit stress situations as much as possible. It is normal to be anxious when parents see their children under stress, and as parents and care givers, it is normal to want to fix their problems. However this will not help them in the long run. Instead, parents and care givers should focus on helping them with their problem solving skills, helping them grow. The least but not the last, parents or care givers should be there when their children need them. "Kids don't always feel like talking about what's bothering them. Sometimes that's OK. Let your kids know you'll be there when they do feel like talking. Even when kids don't want to talk, they usually don't want parents to leave them alone."(Nemours Foundation, 1995-2010)

Stress can have adverse effects in developing children. "Consequences of unmanaged childhood stress are linked to physical, emotional and behavioural difficulties that adversely influence all aspects of development, often leading to lifelong problems."(Landy, 2009) It is essential for parents, care givers or teachers to realize when a child is in need. Early intervention can often prevent serious complications. Children should have a chance to grow in an environment which will help their brains develop. The brain is an essential part of humans in which the proper development in the early years of childhood is essential to healthy brain. "The early years of life constitute a particularly sensitive period during which chronic stress may lead to dysregulation of the stress system and may compromise brain development." (Gunnar, Herrera, & Hostinar, 2009) After all, according to Nash, "Rich experiences in another word really do produce rich brain.


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