Preschoolers Feel, React to Stress
As a mother and former preschool teacher, I understand stress. Every parent does. But it can be a real issue for kids too. It turns out the hormone our bodies release to deal with stressors — cortisol — is one way to measure and explore stress in children.
Adults cope with stress by learning to calm themselves, and children ages 3 to 6 need to learn how to cope too. Understanding some of the underlying structures of stress may help us better guide them.
Cortisol levels at home and away
Why does cortisol matter? Cortisol controls our responses to stress and aids in digestion, the immune system and energy usage. When we face challenges, cortisol levels spike and provide us with energy. High cortisol levels can suppress immunity when stress is chronic, so keeping levels more stable helps maintain optimal health.
Sarah Watamura of the Child Health and Development Lab at the University of Denver looked at cortisol and stress in toddlers and preschoolers. She found young kids were aware of stress within the family even if parents tried to hide it. Paying attention to a preschooler's stress signals (crying after separation, exhaustion after day care, trouble sleeping, frequent illness) and reacting with support helps.
What stresses them out? Watamura discovered that preschoolers could be more stressed by interaction with peers than by separation anxiety. Levels of cortisol often increased as children attempted to play with lots of other kids.
"At home, preschool-age children typically show a decreasing pattern of cortisol production across the day," Watamura says. "At child care, many children show a rising pattern," probably since they are more challenged there.
Nurture at home to combat stress
Science shows nurturance matters. The amount of nurturing young rats receive from their mothers (licking and grooming in infancy) has lasting effects on their stress response over their life cycle. Laurie Miller Brotman and researchers at the NYU School of Medicine found in studies of parenting and children's stress response that, in fact, there is a cause-effect relationship.
They aimed to see whether intervention for preschoolers at risk for antisocial behavior could alter the kids' biological response to a stressful social situation (playing with a group of unfamiliar peers). After the intervention, cortisol levels of preschoolers who were taught coping skills were found to be lower than for those without instruction.
"The results provide further evidence that early intervention can have a profound effect on children," says Brotman, who is a professor of psychiatry at the NYU School of Medicine.
Stress at home
Preschoolers are affected by the stress of family members. A new study published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry found that almost 15 percent of preschoolers have atypically high levels of depression and anxiety. This five-year exploration by Sylvana M. Cote and fellow international researchers in Canada and France found that children with atypical levels were more likely to have mothers with a history of depression.
"We found that lifetime maternal depression was the second most important predictor of atypically high depressive and anxiety problems during preschool years," Cote says. The researchers stress preventive interventions are needed to see a long-term impact on the well-being of kids at risk.
Tips to help stressed preschoolers cope
* Assure your child. If the stressor for your child is at home, Watamura says to talk to your child about how you will be able to figure it out and that there's no need to worry.
* Assess the connection. If your stressed child goes to day care or preschool, investigate to make sure your child's teacher is bonding with her. Science shows that cortisol levels are more stable when there is a secure attachment.
* Ask around. Watamura suggests asking your care provider: "Does my child play well when she wants to play? How does she do when I leave? When are the roughest times of day?"
* Offer choices. Give your child appropriate ones, such as letting her pick a friend for a play date.
* Provide a heads-up. To prevent a meltdown, make sure she knows what to expect. She'll be better able to adjust to circumstances that could trigger stress.
Forget about creating constant nirvana. Watamura reminds that, "Like adults, kids don't always have to be happy" so you shouldn't automatically try to "fix" things.
Michele Ranard has a master's in education and is a professional counselor, tutor and regular free-lance writer. She is passionate about helping children and their parents better cope with life's chaos.