What stress does to a child: The link between security and the ability to think

The primary cause of stress is always fear - of the dark or facing an authoritarian adult, fear of the class bully, the pressure of performing well in exams are real threats to a youngster, writes Bela Raja.
What stress does to a child: The link between security and the ability to think
What stress does to a child: The link between security and the ability to think
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When we were still living in caves, a stressful situation was momentary or existed only for a short period, like the time taken to run away from a hungry tiger! Once the person felt safe and sound, she recovered and all physiological functions returned to normal and the individual lived peacefully…till the next life-threatening event. 

Stress is different today because the stressful situation is long drawn out and so are the effects of stress on the child. According to research, children who are constantly stressed are at risk of cognitive damage because the brains of young children are still not fully developed. When a child experiences stress, the hypothalamus in the brain releases a hormone that signals the pituitary gland, which then releases a hormone that signals the adrenal glands to release adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline accelerates the heart rate of the child and pushes up the blood pressure. Cortisol raises the blood sugar. These changes strengthen the child’s muscle power and sharpen her memory while increasing the threshold of pain in the individual. This is all desirable…for dealing with a situation that lasts no more than a short while but the stress our children are subjected to lasts over days or months and even years. That is when, these very same life-saving processes, start working against the young learner. 

Underutilized adrenaline gets stored in the bloodstream and its presence becomes harmful. Nervousness, sleeplessness and lowered immunity are all the result of high stress in the body. Children with overproduction of adrenaline show symptoms of Attention Deficit Disorder. They may display nervous reactions to noise of any kind, they may talk excessively and exhibit disturbed sleep patterns. In fact, even adults suffer from the presence of an excess of adrenaline in the body. There is a high level of anxiety and perfectionist or workaholic tendencies. The chemicals produced by stress also speed up ageing.

The threats that we face today are quite different from the times of the caveman. Fear of the dark or of facing an authoritarian adult, fear of the class bully, the pressure of performing well in exams, the pressure of living up to social expectations, the strain of facing a school/class/teacher that the child perceives as unfriendly—these are real threats to the youngster. The primary cause of stress is always fear in whatever guise it presents itself.

To deal with these situations, the child needs focus, depth and fortitude—all of which are undermined by stress.

Study after study showed that children exposed to stress in different forms, be it household chaos or verbal abuse, had lowered IQs. When the child experiences stress, again and again, the neural pathways that control stress and fear responses get strengthened. Therefore like any oft-repeated act, the brain’s stress response gets activated faster and faster.

How many of us have experienced a mental freeze when we are called up to say something in public? That is the behaviour of the brain under stress. The human brain does not apply logic as to whether a situation is actually life threatening or not. If it senses stress; due to chemical and physiological changes that occur, processes like digestion, optimizing the immune system, maintaining the sleep-wake cycle, all become quite unimportant in the face of the threat. That is why children tend to feel sick or even throw up and catch colds during exams.

The point of all this is to realize that a child will not learn when subjected to stress of any kind. Think about it like this: would you be able to memorize your shopping list when you knew your taxi was waiting downstairs and was threatening to leave? Whatever the nature of the stress, it could be emotional, physical or psychological—if the child feels pressured, it needs to be addressed, however trivial it may seem to the adult.

There was the instance of this 6-year-old, an otherwise outgoing and confident child, who suddenly started clinging to her mother. On gentle questioning, the mother found out that the young girl had watched a TV programme where a 6-year-old girl had been lured out of her house and was lost to her parents forever. The mother realized that her daughter thought a similar thing could happen with her, so she devised a mechanism whereby the little girl could never leave the house without the mother knowing. That set the child’s mind at rest and she once again went back to being her happy, secure self. In the mind of the child, this was a real fear, so real that it brought about a personality change in her. Had it not been addressed and managed, the fear could have manifested in any kind of detrimental manner.

The 2015 report from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) recorded that every hour, one student in India commits suicide. As a country, India has one of the world’s highest suicide rates. 

Why does this happen and who is responsible? Stress is contagious. If the parents are stressed, children will pick up on it. In extreme circumstances, parental stress can affect the development of the brain in the child. 

Based on current research, there are certain factors that can affect the healthy development of a child:

1. When there is stress in the environment of the child, whether an infant or a toddler, it suffers from the adverse effects of the stress. 

2. The growth of a child is subject to the interplay between physical, cognitive, emotional and social development. 

3. A huge amount of neural connections are formed within, during the first three years and after the age of around 7, it slows down but doesn’t stop. The brain will continuously forge new connections depending on the exposure and experiences that the child gets.

4.To a child, neglect is probably more damaging than physical abuse. How is the parent or the adult caregiver supposed to understand subliminal communication from the child when the youngster is not able to express herself?

Excerpted with permission from ‘Sparks of Genius: How to raise a confident, thinking child’ by Bela Raja, Published by Rupa Publications.


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