Stress is a common emotion or state that is experienced at difficult or threatening times. This is often not attributed to children, however, and can be even more detrimental to their mental and emotional state. High stress in children is both physically and psychologically harmful, which can affect behaviors and attitudes in the future. High stress can cause children to lag in academic settings and turn to detrimental social behaviors. This can even lead to heart disease, depression, and other serious complications later in life (Segal and Smith, 2014). Taking preventive measures or intervening early in childhood can greatly decrease these risk factors and consequences. High stress in children interacts with a variety of factors, including attachment style and biology of the developing brain. Based on the social learning theory, caregiver’s active role and community care programs are essential in the intervention and prevention of high stress in children.
Prevention and intervention of high stress in children is possible and necessary. There are many suggestions for parents on how to manage this. As mentioned above, the attachment style between the parent and child is crucial in how the child thinks and behaves. According to Dozier and Cicchetti, interventions should concentrate on attachment styles in order “to increase parental sensitivity, and responsiveness to foster more secure parent-child relationships and alter the child’s inner working models” (2003, 2005). This emphasizes the importance of a “secure base” for the child in order to be active in their environment but also feel comfortable and safe that they have someone to fall back on in times of stress or trauma (Book). It is also important to note that the caregiver is more likely to affect the attachment relationship than the child (Goodman, 2007).
Parenting style also affects the environment of the child, particularly on an emotional level. According to Baumrind’s theory on parenting styles, parents should be high in responsiveness and demandingness (1973). The social learning theory supports this and parents should be aware that they should “use clear, consistent, non-hostile guidance and discipline technique” (Fisher, Burraston, & Pears, 2005). A clear relationship has been seen with the responsiveness and attentiveness of a parent and the stress levels of a child. In a study done by Gunnar and Fisher, parents were tested for responsiveness and sensitivity to the child several times as the child aged. The children were later tested and found to have greater levels of cortisol, which is a hormone released in response to stress (2006). Another study showed the relation of parental responsiveness with right frontal EEG asymmetry, which responds to fear, sadness and anxiety. The results showed that mothers who were low in attention and response had children with greater activity in the right frontal EEG asymmetry (Hane and Fox). These studies emphasize the importance of the caregiver’s role and participation in influencing a child’s emotions and mental states.
There are also intervention programs outside of parenting that can aid in helping a child with high stress. Therapy, both individual and with the family, can be very effective in targeting issues that the child might be having and causing stress. One example of a program that has shown many benefits in both the child and family is “Child First.” David Bornstein in “Protecting Children From Toxic Stress” described the program, which targeted children of lower income families less than six years of age in order to act as a preventive measure (2013). Child First is successful “because it brings a mental health professional into the home alongside a care coordinator who helps the family gain access to basic services.” The team works with the child to address basic problems and how to solve them. They also help guide the caregivers in “reading the child’s cues and being emotionally available on a daily basis” (Bornstein, 2013). This guidance and the access to other care facilities is extremely beneficial in providing aid to diminish the stress of a child.
Baumrind, D. (1973). The development of instrument competence through socialization. In A.D. Pick (Ed.), Minnesota symposia on child psychology (Vol.7, pp.3-46). Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press.
Bornstein, D. (2013, October 30). Protecting Children From Toxic Stress.The New York Times.
Cicchetti, D. (2005, August). Translating interdisciplinary research with high-risk families into preventive interventions. Paper presented at the American Psychological Association, Washington, DC.
Dozier, M. (2003), Attachment-based treatment for vulnerable children. Attachment and Human Development, 5, 253–257.
Goodman, G. (2007), Attachment-Based Intervention with Prepubertal Children: The Impact of Parent, Child, and Therapist Mental Representations on Intervention Points of Entry. Journal of Psychiatry and Psychology 1.1 : n. pag. Web. <http://www.scientificjournals.org/journals2007/articles/1065.htm>.
Hane, A. A., & Fox, N. A. (in press). Natural variations in maternal caregiving of human infants influence stress reactivity. Psychological Science.
Siegler, R. S., DeLoache, J. S., & Eisenberg, N. (2011). How children develop (3rd ed.). New York: Worth Publishers.
Smith, M., Segal, R., & Segal, J. (2014, April). Stress Symptoms, Signs, & Causes. HelpGuide. Retrieved , from http://www.helpguide.org/mental/stress_signs.htm