Being pregnant with my first child has been a lesson in stress – and stress-coping. After a scary first trimester, I decided to take matters into my own hands and only worry about things that were currently happening and actually mattered. Easier said than done, right?
I already know that I’m going to have to re-address my natural freak-out tendencies when this baby comes. Is she/he eating enough? Playing enough? Laughing enough? Eating the right foods? Should I be using cloth diapers? All-natural baby body wash? Am I permanently screwing her up and dooming her to a lifetime of therapy? Slate recently published a great article on childhood stress (“Tender Young Brains”) that discusses what kind of childhood stress parents should actually be worried about, and I felt so relieved after reading it that I had to share it with all of you.
Read my summary of the article after the jump!
Basically, not all childhood stress is created equal. As parents, we may worry that our child breaking a bone is upsetting and traumatizing for them, but the physical response produced by such a stress is short-term and doesn’t inflict permanent damage. More serious stress (‘toxic stress’) caused by neglect or abuse actually produces a long-term physical effect that literally reshapes the way their young brains function, leading to an increased risk for “alcoholism, depression, heart and liver disease, sexually transmitted infections, teen pregnancy, and other problems.”
Toxic stress enlarges the amygdala, a brain structure that controls the release of stress hormones. An enlarged amygdala means the child will be predisposed to more fear and anxiety. In a normal, unstressed brain, the prefrontal cortex helps balance the amygdala’s stress response, but toxic stress actually fries the prefrontal cortex’s neurons and reduces it’s ability to effectively control the amygdala. This hinders the child’s ability to deal with stress down the road. And, amazingly, toxic stress even alters the design and layout of the hippocampus, which plays an important role in memory and mood.
Parents, therefore, should really be concerned about protecting children from abuse and neglect, shielding them from irresponsible adults, giving them a sense of physical stability and safety, and providing them with a strong and supportive emotional environment. As adults, this also means that we should go out of our way to help other children who may be in distress. Toxic stress during childhood is a problem with national health and safety ramifications.
Caring parents who worry themselves over ‘screwing up’ their child, take heart. As Slate so neatly summarized, “Parents and policymakers alike must develop a clear understanding of what childhood stress really means. It’s not a one-size-fits-all term… There’s a world of a difference between one young child who cries himself to sleep with nurturing parents hovering in the next room and one who cries night after night and is never comforted.”