Saturday, March 1, 2008

Stress and Our Children. How Much is Too Much?

Responding to an acute stressor can boost our immune system. But the impact to our immune system, and the inflammatory response, from some stressors can be quite damaging.

The most damaging stressors are unusually prolonged, repetitive, or for which we have no way to positively respond--i.e. ones which we must passively endure. We've talked about how the stress from caring for high-needs children can affect us parents (Stress, Growth, Life, & Hormones). But what about the stress our own children feel?

How much stress is "too much" stress for our children?

Unfortunately, the answer is that for some of our children, very little external stress may already be "too much". Some of us have children that have been born with a biology, or their biology has been affected in such a way, that generates a huge amount of stress for them. They may already be stressed by symptoms arising from that biology. As a double whammy, they may also have less reserve to tolerate additional stressors.

We have talked about what stress is and its adverse affect on us when it is "too much" (Stress, Immune Response, and Illness )

Many of our children are already under biological stressors that they cannot overcome. They already don't feel well. They are already bothered by sensations, sleep problems, allergies, tics, chemical sensitivities, and unknown assaults on their biology that are prolonged, repetitive, and which they cannot positively respond to.

By definition, these children are already stressed. No wonder they seem to have such low "tolerance" for stress or frustration.

Many of us have children that would be classified as an extreme of "The Highly Sensitive Child". They may actually have been diagnosed with a smorgasbord of labels, or just show evidence of a spectrum of disorders that are not quite strong enough for the diagnostic labels. They may have signs of sensory and emotional sensitivities, pervasive development disorder, attentional difficulties, sleep disorders and huge stress-inducing nightmares.

This high degree of sensitivity is not "mental illness". It is something about their biology. It means they need special nurturing. They need coping strategies, environmental adaptations, and nutritional adaptations. And yes, in some cases they may require medications. My own daughter went too long without hormonal medications, anti-seizure medications, nutritional supplements, dietary changes, medications for sleep, and more that she actually required. Why? Because of doctors not looking for the need. They weren't looking because she had always been one of these "highly sensitive" children. They labeled the biology as "mental" in spite of the lack of any psychological pathology.

We all have our own personal level of stress tolerance, or "breaking point". These children with a lower level of tolerance, or lower breaking point, have "melt-downs" from what we may consider "nothing". We may feel frustrated with them. The things other children may find enjoyable and "good stress", or even "fun", motivating or simply challenging, may be completely overwhelming for these children.

Unfortunately, some parents may not realize this is a biological problem. They may think it is "mental" -- a problem existing solely in their child's mind. It is therefore a parenting issue; its a discipline issue. They need to push their child to be "stronger". "Shape up". "Fight back". "Get a thicker skin". "Toughen up". "Suck it up".

They may not realize the child needs a much lower stress level because their biology is causing too much stress as it is, or that biology simply does not have the resilience of other children. Instead, parents may react negatively towards such a child's "behaviour". They feel disgusted and disappointed that the child is a crybaby. A "wimp". Won't interact in the expected way. Overreacts. Isn't "normal". They may seem "obstinate" or "oppositional" when in reality the child is reacting to their own internal breaking point and stress tolerance.

The parents' negative reaction towards such a child can make everything worse. Outsiders may think the child's problems are because of the parents' negativity towards that child, whereas the parents' negativity might have started because of the child's biology to begin with. To make things worse for that child, that same biology often makes the child a target for bullying at school.

These children may actually need more acceptance than the average child. They may need more "nurturing". They may also need a lot more therapeutic intervention and support to help them live with this stress and overly stressed and sensitive biology. A person with any chronic condition needs to feel empowered. That requires understanding what is going on, and tools to help. It may require a paradigm shift in our thinking and in our understanding about what we are superficially perceiving as "behaviours". That alone can be powerful medicine for them (and even relieve our own stress and strengthen our ability to cope, and help our children cope!). They may also need a higher nutrition level to protect adrenal function because their body (again, brain included) is already stressed, they may have more inflammatory responses, and less ability to fight off infections.

Unfortunately, many children fall through the cracks. Their problems are physically "invisible".

Occupational Therapy, Pragmatics, Expressive Arts and Play therapies are too often not provided. The child may not seem to have dire problems in any one specific area to warrant those therapies. But those therapies may go a long way to help the child cope with, and adapt to their own innate sensitivities, which would in turn lower a source of internal stress. It would seem to thus raise the child's tolerance to stress.

Additionally, parents may not be able to afford the nutritional supplements the child may need as a child under extreme physical stress. Indeed, many doctors don't even mention it to their patients. Perhaps they have forgotten the cascade effect of stress on the child's endocrine system.

The child may be ultra-sensitive to environmental toxins. They may have more allergies. Sleep may be disturbed. The non-restorative sleep can further contribute to the internal stress. It can become like a vicious down-ward spiral.

Studies of childhood-onset schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, illnesses notorious for its high correlation to stress-intolerance, shows a very high co-morbidity of other problems affecting the child's body and brain.

Many of these children already had learning disabilities, pervasive developmental problems, speech or language problems, sensory sensitivities, allergies, intestinal problems, sleep disturbances, differences in energy levels, endocrine problems, and subtle neurological differences such as in eye-tracking and gait.

We worry about this extreme external stress-intolerance because it means several things.

  1. Their own biology and symptoms they may get from it such as their severe nightmares, brief hallucinations, sensory intolerance, etc may overwhelm the child and in itself be too much stress.
  2. Normal Life is stressful. Children are under tremendous day-to-day stress from siblings, school expectations, other children at school and in their neighborhood, and their own drive to succeed.
  3. These kids may not be able to handle normal stress due to the stress their own biology has caused with sensory sensitivities, etc. Their meltdowns, withdrawal, and intolerances cause them to miss out on some of what we consider a normal part of childhood.
  4. They may miss out on satisfying social interaction and play with other children.
  5. On top of all the normal stress life provides, these kids often have the additional stress of the therapies themselves meant to ultimately lower the stress. They may need the OT, pragmatics, special tutoring for LDs, speech therapy, extra doctor appointments, appointments with psychiatric professionals, and appointments with psychological therapists. All this cuts into normal childhood development time which needs to include adequate time for unstructured play.
A multi-pronged approach may be needed to help reduce the negative effects from stress. All of the following are important:
Diet and nutrition (including testing and complementary nutrition/supplements), addressing allergies, psychological therapies to improve mental health and change how stress is perceived (critical for all chronic illnesses), relaxation techniques, support for the entire family unit, lower family stress, school accommodations, elimination of exposure to bullying, exercise, low toxin exposure, addressing sleep issues, and in some cases, pharmaceutical interventions.
And lastly, we are in a society that provides very little support for the family of these children. That adds an at-times unbearable amount of stress on the entire family unit. And of course, when the family unit breaks down under the huge weight of the stress, society is quick to blame the family for its own implosion. It is much easier to blame the parents, and label the children as having "mental problems" than face the fact that the family itself needed help from all of society to avoid disaster.

These children, and their families, should have had all the support given to children with obvious medical problems to begin with.

But that would require a tremendous shift in thinking. But that's what we need. A paradigm shift about what we call "mental" and "mental illness".

Related Reading:

The Stress Connection: Meeting Hormonal, Nutritional, and Metabolic Needs
Stress, Immune Response, and Illness
Omega-3 Fatty Acids (Fish Oil): DHA, EPA, and How Much is Enough?
Mitochondrial Dysfunction & Psychiatric Symptoms
Childhood-Onset Schizophrenia Has High Rates of Comorbid Diagnoses Including Autism and ADHD
Inflammation of Body and Brain
Important Links to Help Our Children

Related Books:

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Last Update:   8 August 2011

1 comment:

Herb said...

And when that paradigm shift is made, I suspect that research will begin to focus on finding the physical cause of the dysfunction in the mind. Hopefully, the researchers will recognize that pharmaceuticals themselves are, many times, stressors in their own right, and look for therapies that replenish the normal hormones and enzymes and/or their precursors.