Stress and the Mental Health of Children

Child on playground looking through tunnel.Children’s mental health and well-being are affected by things that happen to them when they are very young and how they react to them.  

Researchers at Harvard University  have studied three kinds of stress responses people have as children.  Some stress responses can be positive and tolerable, while others are toxic or dangerous. 

Examples of positive stress responses in children are when a child deals with failure, fears a flu shot or starts the first day of school.

Stress that is harder to deal with but still tolerable includes things such as someone in the family dying or being really sick, parents getting divorced or going through an accident or disaster.

When children have safe homes and loving adults around them they can learn to handle positive and tolerable stress and they can grow from it. Also, children can watch, learn, and practice healthy responses to difficult events and experiences.

Toxic stress response, however, is more dangerous and it can affect the way a child’s brain develops.  Toxic stress occurs when a child faces big problems that do not go away.  The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, collaborative research between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente in San Diego, provides proof of the health, social and economic risks that result from childhood trauma.

Children who are hit or treated badly, have to fend for themselves, or are in the hands of parents or caregivers with substance abuse or mental health problems can have problems thinking or knowing how to behave. Studies show that toxic stress can hurt children’s health and mental well-being for as long as they live.  

Where children live, work, play, and pray can affect how physically, mentally, and emotionally healthy they are growing up and how healthy they will be as adults.  Children born into troubled homes or who live in poverty have a higher chance of mental health problems than children who do not have toxic stress in their lives. 

Parents, caregivers, people who provide social services, as well as teachers, nurses, and doctors can help identify children in need of mental health services. But first, they must know what to look for and have good information on the warning signs of children suffering from toxic stress.

While there is no formal screening test for toxic stress, children who exhibit troublesome behavior, signs of social or emotional withdrawal may be suffering from toxic stress. Parents who see these signs should talk to their child’s doctor  and others should report the problem to the proper authorities.

Children and young adults who have experienced toxic stress can feel better if caring adults see the problem and get these children the help they need early.   These days, there are many types of mental health treatment available.  Talking, and for young children, playing, with a local counselor trained in mental health can be one of the first steps in helping children recover. 

Lastly, creating a society that reduces or addresses toxic stress in children can give kids a fair chance of becoming healthy adults. 

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