Understanding Children & Stress

Stress has been on my mind these past few days since the earthquake hit here in Christchurch. And I can’t help thinking about what effects this disaster is (or will be) having on the children, including my two year old granddaughter Caitlin. Loving parents and attentive caregivers such as the teachers I met that day at Westburn School will go a long way to helping the children overcome the jolt of trauma they felt on Tuesday. But the lasting effects on young, developing minds is something we’re all going to have to watch for carefully.

Earthquakes aside, the topic here is stress, and it can come in many forms, leaving a lasting, negative imprint on children’s early development. Indeed, there is a body of research that shows just how important it is to provide a calm and loving environment in order to help insure children’s emotional and social well-being, and surprisingly, children’s CAPACITY TO LEARN. Here’s how it works...


Scientists studying stress have shown that when a human being feels threatened – physically or emotionally – a chain reaction of chemicals is released in the brain and sent coursing through the body. In doing this, the brain is fulfilling it’s first, primary function – survival. 

You see, stress hormones such as adrenalin and cortisol are the body’s physiological alarm bell signaling danger. And it doesn’t matter whether that danger is defined as an earthquake, a public speaking engagement, a bad report card, or a boo-boo. The body responds physiologically pretty much the same way every time.

So here’s what happens.  When these hormones are triggered, the brain goes into a primitive state known as “fight or flight,” pouring nearly all of its energy back down into the brain stem – the area that controls automated functions such as breathing and heart rate. At the same time, the senses are heightened and blood rushes into the muscles (which feels like shivering) in readiness to “fight” or “flee” the danger. 

Now, because of this rush of focus down into the brain stem, the brain has difficulty accessing the cortex – the higher region of the brain that governs thinking and executive function. If you’ve ever felt highly stressed or scared you may remember feeling an inability to think clearly. And in fact, that’s exactly what’s happened, because your brain, without your permission, went on “automatic survival pilot.”



Of course, I’m thumbnailing years of essential research here into a few paragraphs, but the long and the short of it is this: when we are under stress the thinking part of our brain is more or less de-activated. And when we can’t think, we can’t learn. 

Further, when cortisol is present in the system for prolonged periods, science has shown it may have long-term damaging effects including depressed immune responses which can effect health, and memory impediments which can impact learning. 

Consider it this way: a child under emotional or physical stress means a brain closed off to higher, cognitive functions, while a happy, relaxed child means a brain open to new ideas, immersive learning experiences, and creative problem solving. 

So, the next question is, what is stress for little ones?



Children are small, vulnerable, dependent, needs-driven creatures.  Without years of experience in understanding the world around them, they stress easily (hence, all the crying) over a variety of factors, including hunger, discomfort/pain, separation, and both instinctual and acquired fears. As a parent or caregiver, managing these stresses through all of their developmental stages is an essential part of helping your child grow and learn to their highest cognitive, emotional, social, and physical potential. 


For newborns and infants, I believe there’s only one approach: meet your child’s every need. Making sure she is well fed, warm, dry, comfortable, and connected to you (especially when she is in need) is essential for controlling newborn stress levels. There are theories that babies should be left to cry in order to learn to self-calm. But the physics simply don’t work in my opinion.  The more stress hormones that build up in their tiny bodies, the harder (and longer) it will take to calm down. 

Further, even the youngest babies can read your stress levels, so managing your stress is equally important.  If you are calm and confident, your child is more likely to be relaxed, because just as in all relationships, emotions fuel emotions, positively or negatively. And while I realize staying level and calm around your child is not always easy, it never pays to add fuel to her “stress fire.” 



As your child grows and is better able to communicate, she may now be entering a time when she can begin to explore the power to calm herself in times of stress – an essential step on the road to developing independence and self-confidence. Experts call this self-calming. 

For instance, I’ve seen parents react when a little one trips and falls, encouraging them by saying, “You’re OK,” as the child gets back to her feet.  And while I applaud the encouragement, the challenge I see is that the child isn’t given the opportunity to assess her own “Okness.”  

Instead, I recommend parents try a slightly different approach. Rather than say, “You’re OK,” ask her, “Are you OK?” This does three things: 

  1. It respects your child’s ability to assess her own feelings
  2. Shows her you have confidence in her and builds self-esteem
  3. Reassures her you’re right there if she decides she needs you. 

Stress is a fact of life, and helping your child learn to cope with her feelings is a balancing act you will play out time and again. And no, the two of you aren’t going to get it right every time. But instilling confidence in her while making sure she knows you’re always there when needed, is the best start you can give her down the road to independence, and the ability to manage stress in multiple situations, with or without you.  

Helping children calm down from a stressful moment in the day takes love and attention. And sometimes you can even help the process along with a little humor. 

Next time your little one’s Grin goes missing, try this game. As you recite the poem, search all over your child (and add a little tickle here and there) and before you know it, that grin will come running back!  Note: please, feel free to make up your own words to match whatever fits your particular situation! 

And after you’ve found your child's Grin, reverse roles and have her find yours!


Finding Grin

Oh, where did Grin go?
I do miss him/her so. 

Did he/she flap like a crow?
Is that him/her on your toe? 

Did he/she buzz like bee?
Is that him/her on your knee? 

Did he/she hop like a bunny?
Is that him/her on your tummy? 

Oh, wait!
Now I see.
Here he/she comes!
Right towards me! 

Welcome back,
Great big Grin!
Right at home
Above your chin!