Stress is caused by any challenge or condition that forces us to abandon our usual ways of functioning and thinking and behave dramatically differently from our usual way of thinking and behaving. Hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, fires and automobile collisions come to mind.
But stress also can be caused by seemingly benign experiences.
This weekly column about parenting issues is written by local early childhood experts. It publishes on Mondays in the Steamboat Today. Read more columns here.
What events are stressful to a child? That depends on the child’s age and developmental stage.
For an unborn child (yes, they experience stress) it could be an event that causes anxiety or depression to his or her mother. For an infant, as we parents know all too well, it’s the state of hunger (or colic). For a toddler, it could be exhaustion. For a preschooler, it may be a disappointment or rejection by a friend.
As children age, they experience more opportunities to encounter stressful events of differing types. The list is endless and includes exposure to domestic violence.
How do children respond to stress? Withdrawing, crying, misbehaving, throwing tantrums, arguing and refusing to comply with parents’ requests are among many responses children may show.
We’re all familiar with the “fight or flight” reaction. Those options are available to people who are old enough and big enough to use them. Most kids aren’t.
The reactions of “freeze," withdrawal and surrender are seen in children who feel helpless in the face of stressful events.
Our brains under stress have little logical thinking available to them. They are more likely to function from more emotion-driven regions and, ultimately, from the survival region of the brain.
Children who cannot manage their stress feel helpless, though they may sound like tyrants.
How does this information help you be a thoughtful parent?
First of all, by remembering that your child’s response to his or her stress may not make sense to your adult brain.
Second, by keeping in mind that your child is doing the absolute best that he or she can, given the circumstances.
And third, by managing to stay cool so your child feels understood and accepted, even if the behavior seems outrageous. Reconnecting with your child is essential.
Chris Young, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist in private practice of child and family psychology with a Level 1 Certification in Neurometric Model of Therapeutics. Dr. Young is a partner of the First Impressions of Routt County Early Childhood Council.