How does stress affect a child?
Childhood is a time of rapid development. The experiences we have during childhood help to shape the adults we will become.
We all want our children to live a happy, healthy life, but it’s important to know that at some stage all children will experience times of stress.
Stress is the body’s way of responding to demand or pressures. It’s just inevitable that life won’t always be smooth sailing and that challenges will have to be faced.
Mental health and wellbeing is established early in life and provides children with the foundation for all aspects of their development including physical, educational, social, emotional and cognitive development.
Often it is how our child responds to negative experiences and situations that determines the outcome and whether stress will have a lasting effect on their behaviour and development.
For children, whose bodies and minds are still growing, a well-tuned stress response system is especially important. High levels of early stress have been linked to impaired behavioural and emotional development as well as numerous health consequences later in life.
When a situation is perceived as challenging or threatening, the body responds with a series of chemical reactions that affect heart rate, blood pressure, metabolism and other functions. These temporary adjustments help us adapt and survive, but when they happen too frequently or last too long, they can produce lifelong health issues.
Please note that I am not an expert in the psychological effects of stress, but as a nutritionist, I am well equipped to discuss food as a stressor and some of the changes that occur in the body.
How Does the Body React to Stress?
Everyone is different when it comes to how their bodies react to times of increased pressure and stress. When confronted with a stressful situation, the body instantly reacts by releasing stress hormones that trigger the release of energy; you’ve probably heard of this termed the ‘fight or flight‘ response. When hormones are released, the brain becomes more alert and the five senses are heightened.
When stressed, your child may experience one or more of the following:
- Lack of motivation
- Lack of concentration
- Constant fatigue, insomnia or difficulty sleeping
- Rapid/ shallow breathing
- Immune suppression leading to colds, flu or other small infections
- Digestion slows, and digestive enzyme secretion halts and you may have increased appetite or the opposite, a reduced appetite
- Mood swings and irritability
- Depression, anxiety and feeling overwhelmed
- Feeling like your heart is pounding
- Muscle tension
- Skin irritation
- Not coping with responsibilities
In many cases stress is a healthy reaction. It helps us cope with life’s challenges. However too much stress, or prolonged stress can affect our child’s physical and mental health and these reactions may escalate.
Food as a stressor
The good news is that while we may not be able to influence many of the external factors that induce stress in our children, we can at least help our child cope with the effects.
An adequate intake of vitamins and minerals is essential as certain nutrients have been shown to help deal with stress and, at the same time support the organs involved in the stress reaction.
The ‘fighting five’ – vitamins A, C and E and the minerals zinc and selenium – can disarm the free radicals produced in the body under stress.
Foods containing these vital antioxidants include plums, tomatoes, kiwi fruit, black and red berries, citrus fruits, potatoes, capsicum, dark green vegetables, seafood, sesame seeds and pumpkin seeds.
Other vital vitamins and minerals your child needs to combat stress are vitamin B5 and magnesium as these help their adrenal glands. Magnesium rich foods should be eaten daily. These include grains, dark leafy green vegetables, soybeans, wheatgerm, almonds, cod and mackerel. Good sources of B5 include wholegrains, leafy green vegetables and animal and dairy products.
Ensuring your child is getting their Recommended Daily Intake (RDI) of nutrients may help support them to function optimally and stave off the colds that could otherwise bring them down.
So, if certain foods are good for stress it makes sense that some foods will have a negative effect and increase stress. Eating an unhealthy diet containing sugars, refined carbohydrates and fatty, processed foods depletes your child’s nutrients, especially magnesium and can cause stress, affecting your child’s energy levels and immune system.
Cutting out these foods is a positive step in controlling your child’s stress. It is also a good idea to limit their intake of refined, processed and convenience foods, as they have a lot of artificial preservatives, salt and sugar in them and their nutritional content is usually very low.
If you’re concerned that your child’s diet may be lacking, book an appointment with a qualified, nutritionally trained health care professional to help you to explore additional sources of vitamins and minerals. Also, chemical and/or food sensitivity may be implicated in this condition and the possibility of its involvement should be investigated by an appropriate health care practitioner.
If you feel as though your child could use some additional support during times of stress, anxiety or tension, Brauer’s Calm may help to relax them.
Made with homeopathic Passion Flower, which is traditionally used in homeopathic medicine to work with your child’s body, helping to soothe irritability, restlessness and sleeplessness. Baby and Child Calm may be used from 6 months: the natural blackcurrant flavour and included oral measuring dropper make it easy to give to your child. If you would like to learn more about Brauer Calm, you can find more information here.
Stress is a natural part of life, but it shouldn’t overtake your life. If you are concerned about your child’s stress levels or mental health, pay a visit to a professional to discuss ways forward and coping mechanisms.
If you feel your child isn’t coping with stress or is overwhelmed by it, there are helplines that you can call Beyond Blue provides information and support – visit their website to chat online or call them on 1300 22 4636.
Lifeline is also an excellent immediate resource if you are ever feeling overwhelmed and need to talk to someone – visit their website to chat online or call them on 13 11 14.