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The Hidden Harm of Children’s Stress

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The Hidden Harm of Children’s Stress

By Linda Dobson

children's stress

Chronic stress takes its toll on the brain in other ways as well.

The hidden harm of children’s stress is a topic worthy of lots more attention. A lot of parents realize that today’s focus on standardized test scores hurts their children because they can see the loss of exercise, the amount of learning that’s falling by the wayside to concentrate on English and math, and the epidemic proportion of children placed on harmful/too many drugs in an attempt to push childish behavior out of children.

The increased stress on our children, though, is causing internal harm, affecting their learning today and quite possibly into the future. An article titled “Stress and Your Child’s Brain” at Great Schools blog uses the sub-heading, “New research suggests that children are affected by stress in surprising ways.” These findings shouldn’t be a surprise at all; in fact, here are some of the tell-tale signs:

A host of statistics suggest that American children are indeed experiencing stress at new levels: suicides among adolescents have quadrupled since the 1950s; only 36 percent of 7th graders agreed with the statement “I am happy with my life;” and in the past decade, using pharmaceuticals to treat emotional disorders has shot up 68 percent for girls, 30 percent for boys.

Children’s Stress Results Explained

As you may be aware, stress causes the body to release high amounts of cortisol and adrenalin. This is a wonderful, natural mechanism to help humans cope with temporary “fight or flight” needs, but being flooded with these hormones was never intended to be a permanent state of being. This is what is happening because of children’s stress, and the impact could be devastating.

Stress hormones end up swamping our bodies for days, weeks, months. Research shows that cortisol, specifically, chews up the brain if it loiters there long-term. When lab rats in Israel, Germany, USA, China, and Italy were given daily injections of rat cortisol for several weeks, it killed brain cells in their hippocampus region, leaving them depressed, anxious, fearful, immature, needy, and unable to learn new behaviors (e.g. stuck in the same old “rat race).”

Chronic stress takes its toll on the brain in other ways as well.

In Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Robert M. Sapolsky, a Stanford University professor of psychology, enumerated the many ways that brain functions break down when subjected to chronic stress: “Hippocampal neurons no longer work as well,” “neural networks get disconnected,” “the birth of new neurons is inhibited,” and “hippocampal neurons become endangered.” Translation: brains under chronic stress will have trouble learning new things and committing new material to memory.

In a 2006 study, researchers at Arizona State University noted that long-term stress withered the dendrites (neuron branches) in the hippocampus, and decreased dendrite length and branch numbers. Dendrites provide the avenue along which new learning takes place and hippocampus injury (central to memory functioning) leads directly to learning impairment.

What’s the Best Thing Parents Can Do to Reduce Children’s Stress?

The good news, parents, is that reducing children’s stress is just plain common sense. For starters, “study after study has found that children who are exposed to extremely stressful situations — via violence in the home or corporal punishment — have significantly lower IQs than children not exposed to such traumas.” Refrain.

See also, “Mothers Love Leads to Better Learning

“A joint study between Harvard Medical School/McLean Hospital and Catholic University of Korea in 2009 found that children who experienced maternal verbal abuse had lowered verbal IQs and less white matter in their brains. (White matter affects learning by coordinating communication between different regions of the brain.)” Words hurt, too.

“John Medina, author of Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School echoes this sentiment: ‘The emotional stability of the home is the single greatest predictor of academic success. If you want your kid to get into Harvard, go home and love your spouse.'”

It’s important to remember that children will pick up on your stress, too. It may never be talked about, but it’s a fact of human nature and perhaps the root of the “if Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy” maxim well known in our culture.

Obviously, a happy, healthy, peaceful home environment plays a major role in making sure a child’s learning capacity is as great as it can be. Part of “healthy” means regular exercise, too, as it’s a well known stress reducer that also works well on children’s stress.

There are many reasons to make a happy, healthy, peaceful home your family’s top priority. Getting rid of the hidden harm of children’s stress is an important reason to add to your list.



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