Stress in kids can delay brain development

While chatting to a Primary School teacher the other day she described her concern over the amount of stress she was seeing in the classroom. A number of the children were exhibiting signs of stress or anxiety, to levels she hadn't seen before.

This in a Year One class - we are talking about 6 year olds!

Goodness, if they are starting off their school career highly stressed in Year One, how on earth are they going to cope when they get to the later years of High School?

I asked her what she thought was contributing to this and she said that a lot of the highly stressed and anxious kids, also appeared to have highly stressed and anxious parents! Many parents were stressed from running around from pillar to post to ensure that little Johnny or Belinda got to go to all the before and after school activities that they had been signed up for. Multiply that x2 or x3 for larger families and that is a whole lot of stress going on. And stress is contagious!

She said she now often advises the parents to cut down on the activities so that their child could have time to relax and have some down time to do something different, like.....play. She said she found many of the parents were relieved to be given permission to do this.

The Federal Government's announcement of a new scheme whereby GP's will be screening young children for signs of mental illness, it seems that once again the result of ill health is being focussed on, rather than the cause.

A new study published in the Journal of Neuroscience reveals that stress in young children is indeed a problem, not least as it appears to interfere with normal brain development.

In the study, the results of interviews of children aged 9 - 14 and their parents along with MRI scans of the children's brains showed that severe stress makes it harder for the children to use their spatial working memory (short term memory). It interferes with the brain's natural plasticity and in the children was shown to result in smaller sized areas of parts of their brain including the anterior cingulate and frontal lobes.

If we want to be able to help our kids excel, whether it be in the classroom, sport or life in general, it is essential that we help them to manage their stress levels appropriately.

Maybe rather than spending more health dollars on screening, some time spent on ensuring that the lifestyles we lead are more conducive to wellbeing would be a better place to start.

Ways to minimise stress include:

1. Stress can manifest in many different ways and individual children vary enormously in their resiliency and ability to cope. If you suspect your child is stressed, ask if they know what is upsetting them and how can you help. Talking to your child can often be the first step to alleviating some of their anxiety.

2. Kids need time to play and explore their environment. Is it peer pressure or parental expectation that leads to the apparent compulsion to sign up junior for so many out of school activities? If your child appears tired and grumpy and isn't performing well at school, maybe it's time to prune some of the extra curriculum.

3. Many children enjoy a loving and supportive family environment, but sadly some don't. The child at special risk is the child with little love or nurturing in their life. If this is recognised by others, is there some way they can be helped?

4. Kids also benefit from boundaries being set, such as clearly defined bedtimes so they get enough sleep. being allowed to stay up late to watch movies or having the mobile phone tucked under the pillow to text friends over night is a sure way to end up sleep deprived and this reduces a child's ability to cope with stress.

5. Children also need healthy food to nourish their bodies and brains. Fast foods and treats are not conducive to good brain function or mood, so they need to be limited to a being an occasional treat, not something they experience every day.

What else do you think might be contributing to the growing incidence of mental illness in our kids?

Refs:

J. L. Hanson, M. K. Chung, B. B. Avants, K. D. Rudolph, E. A. Shirtcliff, J. C. Gee, R. J. Davidson, S. D. Pollak. Structural Variations in Prefrontal Cortex Mediate the Relationship between Early Childhood Stress and Spatial Working Memory. Journal of Neuroscience, 2012; 32 (23): 7917 DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0307-12.2012