Children and Stress
In an ideal world, the notion of stress would not even exist. However, the reality of life as an adult isn’t usually like this. We can all experience certain levels of stress as we go about our daily lives, be it work or family, financial or relationship related. So as adults, although it’s not particularly welcome, stress is an accepted part of life sometimes and most of us tend to develop strategies and gain experience and coping methods to deal with it.
In our adult minds, we don’t expect children to experience stress. It’s kind of an unwritten rule and generally expected that any stress is taken on board by the grown-ups and that children can, well, just get on with being children. Isn’t this how it’s supposed to be? Childhood should be a worry-free, carefree existence, consisting mostly of play and learning through play, at least in the younger childhood years and stress would be something most of us assign to the adult world. However, this idyllic, rosy picture of childhood isn’t the society-wide reality and in current times we are seeing an increasingly alarming number of children experiencing stress. Indeed studies show "parents perceive children as having lower levels of stress than children perceive themselves as having."1 and that "parents underestimate how much children worry."2
The reality is children do worry and children do experience stress and the situation is becoming increasingly worse in our society as the number of children experiencing stress is rising. Influences, such as cyber-bullying; the pressure to achieve at school; problems at home, between parents, for example, as well as their own relationship with parents; and money struggles, have been sighted as having a huge impact on the number of children experiencing stress. Statistics on the number of children and young people affected by stress have rocketed in recent years, reflecting this sadly alarming situation.
What is stress?
Stress is the way the body responds physically and mentally to extra demands, pressure or difficulties, which can arise from any number of external factors. When we feel stressed adrenaline, noradrenaline, cortisol and glucose are produced. These hormones help prepare the body by raising the blood pressure and heart beat, quickening the breath, and tightening the muscles. A little bit of this can be a good thing, providing an energy boost, alertness and focus and when harnessed it can help us to achieve the task in hand or spur us on to take the necessary action to deal with the stressful situation, for example. It’s often referred to as the ‘fight or flight’ response; the body’s natural way of preparing to deal with danger, an issue or a threat.3
The effects of too much stress
Too much stress, however, can make us feel physically unwell and can negatively affect our health. Too much stress has a negative effect on us both emotionally and physically. It can be quite literally overwhelming. Too much stress can cause us to feel anxious and panicked. Too much stress can cause cognitive function to slow down, making it hard to focus. It’s difficult to be decisive and to think logically when feeling under a lot of stress. Emotions become difficult to control and we are more likely to react irrationally when under stress or quite literally go into meltdown. It can also be difficult to deal with the physical symptoms of too much stress, which can include fatigue, stomach pains and digestive issues; difficulty sleeping; teeth grinding and jaw clenching; headaches; feeling physically agitated and shortness of breath.4
This can all be exceedingly overwhelming for children and young people who usually won’t have the same access to coping methods as adults, nor the same opportunity yet to develop emotional resilience.
Stress can create lasting negative impacts on behavioral and physical health. Stress can manifest in children in different ways to adults, sometimes resulting in behavioural disorders such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD). Stress, if left unmanaged, can cause mental health problems and make existing problems worse and can lead to issues such as anxiety or depression. Stress can affect the way a child conducts him/herself with both peers and adults, leading to relationship issues.5
And the alarming reality; too many young people, not equipped to deal with stress and not getting the support they need, turn to desperate measures such as self-harm as a way of trying to deal with the unmanageable symptoms of stress. Shockingly, 1 in 12 young people self-harm and since 2002 there has been a 68% increase in the number of hospital admissions of young people self-harming in the UK.6
Physical implications and long-term stress
Over the long term, experiencing prolonged stress can have serious implications on our physical as well as our mental health, for example:
Stress can lead to problems with the heart, and those who suffer with long-term stress have a higher risk of cardiovascular disease.
Increased blood pressure and heart rate. High-blood pressure can be caused or made worse by stress. Stress increases blood pressure in the short term, so long-term stress could contribute to a permanently raised blood pressure and lead to health issues such as stroke, kidney failure and heart attack.
Frequent illness such as colds and infections. Stress negatively affects the immune system meaning we are less well equipped to fight off infections and more likely to get unwell. Feeling stressed also affects how quickly you get better from an illness, significantly slowing down the speed of recovery.
Stress can cause us to have skin problems, such as itchy skin and make conditions such as acne, psoriasis and eczema worse.
High levels of early stress have been linked to obesity and diabetes in later life.8
Studies on children and stress
Research in recent years has seen a focus on the lasting biological, behavioural and mental effects of ongoing stress in children and young people and how it can impact health in adulthood:
Many studies indicate that stress negatively affects the body's metabolism and contributes to internal inflammation, which can increase the risk for developing diabetes and heart disease. In 2015, researchers from Brown University in the United States found high levels of inflammatory markers in the saliva of children who had gone through high levels of stress such as abuse or other trauma.9
The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University identifies the huge impact of stress on children: “Extensive research on the biology of stress now shows that healthy development can be derailed by excessive or prolonged activation of stress response systems in the body and brain. Such toxic stress can have damaging effects on learning, behavior, and health across the lifespan.”10
Researchers in the University of California have found that people get depressed more easily following minor life stressors partly because they have had to deal with adversity at a young age or previous stressful episodes during childhood, both of which may make people more prone to later life stress.11
The World Happiness Report, based on a wealth of research, argues over half of children who have a mental health problem will suffer from mental ill-health as adults.12
Children and stress in the UK
Sadly the statistics reveal a worrying situation with regards to our children and young people’s mental health and well-being and also highlight the lack of social support available for them to access. A major study published in April 2015 by the Office of National Statistics (latest release April 2017) ‘Measuring National Well-being: Insights into children's mental health and well being’ showed that 1 in 10 children 5-16 years, or 3 in every classroom, have a diagnosable mental health problem, including stress, anxiety and depression. This figure has doubled between the 1980s and mid 2000s.
In addition, the study reveals:
Approximately 850,000 children and young people have a clinically significant mental health problem.
Almost 1 in 4 children showed some evidence of mental ill health (including anxiety and depression).13
Influences affecting stress levels in children
Factors affecting children’s well being and mental health include:
Bullying can cause severe stress to a child and can eventually lead to anxiety and depression. One study published on 2 June 2015 discovered that children who had been bullied at age 13 were more than twice as likely to have depression by age 18.14 According to the Office for National Statistics, in 2011 to 2012 around 1 in 8 children, which equates to 12%, reported being bullied at school more than 4 times in the last 6 months.15
Parent/child relationships have been cited as one of the main contributing factors negatively affecting children and leading them to feel stressed. Disruptive and strained relationships between parents and children has a huge impact on a child’s happiness, life satisfaction, and psychological distress.16 Furthermore, The Children’s Society states that a child’s relationship with their parents is a crucial contributor to a child’s overall well-being and disruptions or volatile relationships can lead to behavioural issues as children struggle to deal with the stress brought about by the nature of such relationships.17
Judgement or evaluation by others can cause a great deal of pressure in children and young people. Ultimately we all want to belong. When we are young often belonging revolves around ‘fitting in’ and fitting in. How our peers view us can really affect how we feel and how we view ourselves when we are young. Peer pressure dictates, be it having the latest mobile phone or wearing the ‘right’ outfit, or not being accepted for who you are; this can cause an enormous amount of stress and anxiety in young people.
Happiness with school
Children spend the majority of their time at school and being happy at school has a significant impact on general feelings of happiness, contentment and well-being. Lots of factors come into consideration when measuring a child’s happiness at school such as relationships with peers, academic ability, socioeconomic status, and sporting ability.18 Stress can be felt by children when put under pressure to achieve. An article published in the Guardian on 1 May 2017 claims “Eight out of 10 school leaders say fear of academic failure has lead to increase in mental health issues around exam time” and that “school children sitting national tests are showing increased signs of stress and anxiety.” 19
Witnessing domestic violence
According to the Young Minds annual report 2015/6 witnessing domestic violence is children’s most frequently reported form of trauma.20
Disruptive homes. Negative interactions between parents
The relationship between a child’s parents has a huge impact on the child’s well being and mental health. Parents who consistently argue cause children high levels of stress and anxiety and it can make a child feel unstable and insecure. Added to this studies have found that children often feel responsible for their parents happiness and the stress from this heavy weight of responsibility can be a huge factor in childhood stress.21
The annual report produced for the year 2015/16 produced by Young Minds argues that bereaved children are 1.5 times more likely than their peers to be diagnosed with a mental health condition, so bereavement understandably puts a huge amount of stress on children and young people. Helping our young people and supporting them through bereavement is paramount to helping to avoid any longer term health issues.
Being a young carer
Recent statistics show that 2 in 5 young carers have a mental health problem and that almost half of young carers experience extra stress relating to the care they provide or the lack of support they receive.”22
Modern times. Media and Social Media. Growing up too fast
So many modern day influences have a huge impact on our children as they are inundated with messages about how they should act, what they should wear, who they should aspire to be like, what music they should listen to, what they should eat, how they should act. The world wide web and more specifically the rollout of social media has changed the communication goalposts and has had a giant impact on how much information we now have immediate access to and also on what we do with this information. Although we can guide our children, it’s nigh on impossible, particularly in teenage years, to monitor their every on-line move and we have to trust them to be able to pick their way through what can only be described as a social minefield where the lingo will leave you far behind if you don’t keep yourself up to date and involved. Not only does all of this mean our children could be said to be ‘growing up too fast’ with exposure to celebrities and privy to information and ideas that they would not in previous decades had access to until perhaps adulthood? It can also mean a different kind of pressure. Social media also opens up the floodgates for popularity wars on a different scale to the school playground. Our children are living in a cyber jungle and it can be tough out there. This can put a huge amount of pressure onto children causing them to feel worried and stressed. This jungle can be the arena for social comparison, cyber bullying and isolation, all of which can affect a child’s mental health and feelings of well-being.23
Screen time and stress
In addition to the above issues, too much screen time has been shown to be ultimately stressful for children. The Public Health England report, How healthy behaviour supports children’s well-being, shows a negative association between screen time (including watching television, DVDs and videos) and mental well-being. The report argues “children who spend more time on computers, watching TV and playing video games tend to experience higher levels of emotional distress, anxiety and depression” and that this is particularly evident for those children spending more than 4 hours a day involved in activities which involve looking at a screen.24
One sad result of the advancement in technology and the overload of information our children receive can be seen in the number of young people who are worried about body image. Presented with unhealthy and unachievable stereotypes of how a girl or boy should look physically, our young people are increasingly dissatisfied with their own bodies. Poor body image can lead to poor self esteem, causing a child to feel stressed about how they look and what they are wearing. Short term stress can be really hard to deal with. Unfortunately with issues such as negative body image it can be a longer term problem and the long term worry is children can develop anxiety and depression as a result of these negative emotions about body and self-image. Poor body image has been linked to depression, particularly amongst teenage girls. Data from the Office for National Statistics shows that approximately 1 in 10 children aged 10 to 15 years old are unhappy with their appearance (11% in 2011 to 2012 and 10% in 2012 to 2013). The proportion of girls reporting they are unhappy with their appearance is around double that of boys (14% of girls compared with 7% of boys in 2012 to 2013).25
Other factors or influences that have been cited as causing stress to children and young people include: feeling pressured to perform or behave beyond their ability; being overscheduled; failing an exam; unrealistic classroom demands; the future; problems with peers; problems with a boyfriend or girlfriend; any situation that threatens self-esteem; disagreements with teachers, parents or other adults.26
Lifestyle changes and advice to keep your child stress free
The number one piece of advice is to lovebomb your child. This is the overall overwhelming thing all children, all human beings need; love. In copious amounts. Love and nurturing, acceptance, support and understanding.
Children need a loving, safe space. Not just a physical safe space but a safe space within their families and within their homes and within their communities and within their school and within their relationships with parents. Children need to feel safe and safe to be themselves and safe to discuss fears, worries, problems. A nurturing home life and environment is paramount to a child’s wellbeing and ultimately to a child's good physical and mental health.
Unconditional love and affection from a parent is paramount. A child who is nurtured and loved is more likely to avoid mental health issues, personality and behavioural issues later in life and become a healthy, rounded and balanced individual. Studies show the “crucial importance for personality development of parental love, responsiveness and sensitivity.”27
It’s paramount that adults understand the negative and highly damaging effects of stress on children's mental and physical health, well being, learning and behaviour.
Managing own stress
“Adults must learn positive ways to manage stress – both for themselves and for the children with whom they live and work.” 28
Help build confidence and self-esteem
Loving and nurturing your child and providing a safe and happy home life will naturally be building your child’s confidence and sense of self-esteem. Adding to this by actively praising our children and commenting on the positive things about them and helping to bolster their confidence is always a wonderful thing and can really help a child to feel comfortable in their own skin and with their own identity and reduce the likelihood of them suffering from stress.
Limit Screen time
Too much screen time really is bad news for our children. They may tell you it helps relax them and it’s what they like to do. This is fair enough. But listen to the health experts and limit the daily time spent on screens. It actually ends up stressing our kids out. Safe screen time limits is the only way to go if we want to help our children to remain stress-free, balanced and happy individuals. The government’s report from the Office for National Statistics notes that children spending more than 3 hours on social websites a night were more than twice as likely to report high stress levels as children spending less time on social websites”29
Switching off gadgets, phones, laptops a good couple of hours before bedtime is a good start to alleviating and avoiding stress and ensuring children get a good and restful night’s sleep. According to numerous studies and Yale Medical Group sleep expert Meir Kryger, MD,“Not doing so could open the door to poor school performance and health problems.”30
Exercise is a great stress-buster and a regular exercise regime can significantly help bring about feelings of vitality, health, well-being, increased energy levels, a sense of calm, a sense of well-being. Sport and physical activity helps children to relax physically and also releases endorphins in the body which produce a real feeling of well-being. Exercise basically makes us feel good! Further to this exercise helps us to relax and helps us to sleep better too. Sleeping difficulties can be exacerbated when under immense stress.
Eating a healthy, balanced diet at regular times and ensuring we get at least our 5-a day of fruit and vegetables will ensure we stay healthy generally.
Getting regular sleep can make such a difference to stress levels. Sleep gives our bodies the chance to rest, grow, build, repair and rejuvenate. Sleep helps us to go about our daily lives with enough energy and vitality to achieve what we need to physically. Furthermore, lack of sleep can impair the immune system and interfere with vital processes meaning we’re more likely to get unwell.
Sleep helps us to remain rational and rooted in ‘reality’ and perspective. If we’re deprived of sleep, we run the risk of existing in a misshapen reality where the memories formed and maintained tend to be negative rather than positive; even when experiences during waking hours are a balance of positive and negative.31 Basically not getting enough sleep will significantly add to feelings of stress. Sleep helps our mood. It helps us to cope with the daily emotional experiences of being human. It stands to reason that lack of sleep can contribute to feelings associated with stress, depression and other affective mood disorders. Getting enough sleep can go a long way to to alleviating symptoms associated with a range of mental health conditions and mood disorders.32.
Interestingly, when we’re sleep deprived our perception of pain is increased, so getting enough sleep can also help us to feel less pain physically. This is also true of emotional perception and therefore how we react to emotional pain is affected by how much sleep we get.33
Creating a regular, specific bed ‘time’ for children that you stick to can help too. The daily routine of going to bed and waking up at the same time can help set a healthy sleep pattern and promote good sleep and keep our children happier, healthier and less likely to experience stress.
Dietary advice and supplements
In small doses vitamin B6 would be a good supplement to help a child who is experiencing stress and to generally help to keep the body and mind balanced.
Essentially B Vitamins are crucial nutrients needed by the body for growth, development, and a range of other important functions. The Vitamin B complex supports the promotion of normal nervous system function leading to overall improvement of psychological function (Vitamins 1,B2,B3,B6,B8,B9,B12) which can help improve mood and feelings of anxiety and stress. B-complex vitamins have been specifically linked to reducing stress. They are essential because they provide some of the basic structures required for the synthesisation of stress-relieving neurotransmitters, such as serotonin. Vitamin B is often referred to as the “anti-stress vitamin” because of its ability to fight the effects of stress.34 B vitamins also promote blood flow to active tissues (Vitamin B3) and can prevent oxidative stress, caused by free radicals. It addition, the Vitamin B complex offers support to and maintenance of the immune system; all beneficial capabilities when under extreme stress.35
Lemon balm is a perennial herb belonging to the mint family. It’s believed to provide a calming effect and can help ease anxiety and restlessness. 36 Lemon balm is also linked to improvements in mood and/or cognitive performance.37
Omega 3, 6 and 9 fatty acids
Omega 3, 6 and 9 fatty acids are essential fatty acids that come under the banner of of polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fatty acids. They are a bioactive compound that can be found in both animals and plants.
Research has shown Omega-3 fish oils to have positive effects on general brain health and cognitive ability and have been shown to help reduce feelings of anxiety and stress.38
The most abundant source of the essential fatty acid omega 3 is oily, fat-rich fish, such as sardines, kippers, crab and swordfish. Other plant based foods such as avocado, sunflower oil, flax, linseed oil and walnuts also contain omega 3 fatty acids. Green leafy vegetables are a great source of these EFA’s.
Please note our Omega 3 capsules are not intended for consumption for those under 18 years of age so we recommend maintaining your child’s levels of omega 3 fatty acids via natural food sources only.
Vitamin D helps to regulate mood and a deficiency in this essential vitamin could have a negative effect on stress and anxiety levels. Studies have linked low levels of vitamin D with mood disorders and seasonal affective disorders. Research carried out between 2011 and 2013 by Anglin et al confirmed that low levels of the active form of vitamin D is associated with depressive conditions while administration of supplements was associated with improvements.39 The main source of Vitamin D is Sunlight; (UVB) radiation. While vitamin D can also be obtained from some natural food sources, it can be difficult to get adequate levels from food alone. Food sources include: Egg yolks; Liver; Red meat; Oily fish (salmon, sardines, herring, mackerel and fresh tuna) and Fortified foods eg margarine spreads and breakfast cereals.
In the summer of 2016 new government guidelines were issued from Public Health England (PHE), which advised adults and children over the age of one should have 10 micrograms (mcg) of vitamin D daily. It’s also advised that babies from birth up to 1 year require 8.5 to micrograms (mcg) of vitamin D per day. However, babies who consume more than 500ml of infant formula a day don't need a vitamin D supplement because formula milk is already fortified. The advice is based on a report conducted by the government's Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) after a review of the evidence on vitamin D and health.40
It’s largely recommended that everyone should consider taking a vitamin D supplement to ensure that the UK population has satisfactory vitamin D levels throughout the year.41
The benefits of magnesium for stress and anxiety are thought to be huge. Magnesium restricts the release of stress hormones and stops the stress hormones from entering the brain by acting as a barrier or filter.42 Magnesium’s anti-inflammatory capabilities also make it an excellent supplement for stress. Brain inflammation is linked to anxiety, stress, depression and memory loss.43 Magnesium is not harmful for children when taken in smaller doses so ensure you adhere to the recommended daily amount for your child’s age.
Support and awareness
Young Minds, the UK’s leading charity committed to improving the emotional well-being and mental health of children and young people note in their 2015/16 annual report that there’s been an average increase in referrals of 25% to targeted Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), with the range being between 20-70% and that CAMHS are, on average, turning away nearly 25% of children referred to them for treatment.44
It’s clear that an increasing number of young people are experiencing an increasing amount of stress and that this alarming fact needs to be taken on board and addressed by ensuring the the support structures are now put in place to provide the right support where it’s so desperately needed. The Young Minds annual report 2016/16 revealed that only 0.7% of the NHS budget is spent on children’s mental health, which equates to only 6.36% of
total NHS mental health spend being spent on children’s mental health.45
Hand in hand with adequate support needs to come about a change in attitude towards mental health generally and particularly towards mental health in children and young people. There is a huge stigma attached to mental health and perhaps a certain amount of denial in terms of children and their experience of stress. The only way forward is to talk about stress and other mental health issues and to encourage our children to do the same. It’s time to overcome stigma and promote awareness so we can reach real levels of understanding and acceptance of how stress is affecting our children; so that we can support them and in doing so equip them with the necessary tools to support themselves, as well as ultimately, wherever possible, alleviating or changing the factors that are causing children to experience stress, such as pressure to achieve academically; being bullied at school; quarrels or strained relations with parents.
Looking after our children’s mental health now is crucial to their mental health and well-being as adults. The Young Mind’s annual report noted that 1 in 3 diagnosed mental health conditions in adulthood relate directly to adverse childhood experiences that have subsequently impacted on their psychological development and well being. In addition to this, it’s estimated that half of all mental health problems manifest before the age of 14 years, with 25% enduring mental health conditions being present by the age of 24 years. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that less than half receive treatment at the time.46
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2 KidStress.Witkin, Georgia. New York, Penguin, 1999.
7 Carlson N. R. (2004). Physiology of behavior, 8th ed. New York: Allyn & Bacon. Retrieved from: https://psychcentral.com/lib/the-physical-effects-of-long-term-stress/2/
16 Father-Child Relations, Mother-Child Relations, and Offspring Psychological Well-Being in Early Adulthood.Paul R. Amato.Journal of Marriage and Family.Vol. 56, No. 4 (Nov., 1994), pp. 1031-1042
Published by: National Council on Family Relations:http://www.jstor.org/stable/353611
23 Online Communication, Social Media and Adolescent Wellbeing: A Systematic Narrative Review. June 2014: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/260756474_Online_Communication_Social_Media_and_Adolescent_Wellbeing_A_Systematic_Narrative_Review
24 Public Health England. How healthy behaviour supports children’s Wellbeing: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/232978/Smart_Restart_280813_web.pdf
26 The Powerful Impact of Stress. Victoria Tennant: http://education.jhu.edu/PD/newhorizons/strategies/topics/Keeping%20Fit%20for%20Learning/stress.html
27 Why Love Matters: How affection shapes a baby’s brain. Sue Gerhardt. Routledge, London, 2004, pp.218.
40 SACN_Vitamin_D_and_Health_report.pdf: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/537616/SACN_Vitamin_D_and_Health_report.pdf