Children and Stress: How Much Is Too Much?

by Hannah Vazquez and Coryn Julien
Originally Published: 

Watching Karina pretend to experience and react to stress like an adult might was funny and cute—but also instructive. She had a specific idea of what activities cause stress and a likely response to that stress. But in reality, when children experience stress, they often can’t pinpoint either the cause of their feelings or an appropriate response. Their developing brains and bodies make children very vulnerable to the long-term negative effects of severe stress.

The word “stress” is now normally used to describe negative feelings, but when Dr. Hans Selye defined the term in 1936, he called it “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.” In that view, stress is a normal, even productive, response to stimuli. It is beneficial for children to experience low levels of stress to help them learn how to cope with new situations and adapt to unpredictable circumstances. “Positive stress” is short-lived, causes only minor physiological changes and, as its name indicates, can have a positive impact on a child’s development when handled properly.

But too much stress, known as “toxic stress,” is just that: toxic to children’s physical and neurological development. Prolonged stress—physical abuse, neglect, or witnessing household violence—can make children more susceptible to a whole host of problems, according to the CDC. Chronic stress weakens the immune system, impairs memory and even lowers children’s IQs. These are just the side effects of the profound neurological disruption that takes place when children are repeatedly put in harmful situations that they cannot control.

Parents should not be afraid of their children being exposed to some stress, but vigilance is important to ensure only positive stress occurs. However, more severe stress like divorce or the death of a loved one can be overcome as long as a child has the support of a caring adult. Research shows that even toxic stress can be prevented or reversed by the solid presence and responsiveness of an adult caregiver.

Love is a powerful thing, and a stable environment and supportive adults will allow a child to learn to cope with stress in a healthy way. It’s fine for your child to freak out when getting a shot or wail for half an hour when learning to sleep through the night on their own. It’s just positive stress, and it’s all part of the developmental process.

Imitating Mommy is an important part of the developmental process too—which is why I just laughed at Karina’s dramatics, and gave her a tall glass of grape juice with lunch.

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