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Stress and your child's brain

New research suggests that children are affected by stress in surprising ways.

By Hank Pellissier

Stress! Bad for the body! Bad for the brain! We've seen the articles, watched the 11 o'clock news reports on the "silent killer," and complained to friends and family about how stressed-out we are. While we all know that adult stress can lead to serious illnesses such as ulcers and hypertension, we don't associate these maladies with children.

But research suggests that chronically stressed children do pay a heavy price. In fact, they are at risk of cognitive damage, because their brains are not yet fully developed.

A host of statistics suggest that American children are indeed experiencing stress at new levels: suicides among adolescents have quadrupled since the 1950s; only 36 percent of 7th graders agreed with the statement “I am happy with my life;” and in the past decade, using pharmaceuticals to treat emotional disorders has shot up 68 percent for girls, 30 percent for boys.

An ancient response to new problems

To get a sense of just what children are up against, it's useful to understand the physiological effects of stress on the brain.

When a child experiences stress, the hypothalamus (above the brain stem) releases a hormone that rushes to the neighboring pituitary gland. The pituitary gland then mobilizes the production of a second hormone that swims via the bloodstream to adrenal glands above the kidneys. The adrenal glands activate adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline accelerates the child's heart rate and elevates the blood pressure. Cortisol pumps up the blood sugar level, elevating the child's muscle and memory power and boosting the pain threshold.

So what's wrong with that, you wonder? Between increased memory power and elevated pain threshold, wouldn't this help children learn faster and better? Far from it. Our fight-or-flight stress reaction is designed for emergency life-or-death situations. Eons ago, the physiological response to stress allowed us to escape (or battle) Paleolithic beasts, enabling us to prevail against dangers that lasted about thirty seconds.

Unfortunately, modern problems and challenges — perfectly exemplified by the 13 years of schooling expected of each child in our nation — aren't untangled as swiftly.  They require long-term focus and fortitude — the very thing that stress can undermine.

Is your child caught in the rat race?

What happens when the brain is stressed — not for a few seconds, but year after year? Stress hormones end up swamping our bodies for days, weeks, months. Research shows that cortisol, specifically, chews up the brain if it loiters there long-term. When lab rats in Israel, Germany, USA, China, and Italy were given daily injections of rat cortisol for several weeks, it killed brain cells in their hippocampus region, leaving them depressed, anxious, fearful, immature, needy, and unable to learn new behaviors (e.g. stuck in the same old "rat race)."

Chronic stress takes its toll on the brain in other ways as well.

In Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers, Robert M. Sapolsky, a Stanford University professor of psychology, enumerated the many ways that brain functions break down when subjected to chronic stress: "Hippocampal neurons no longer work as well," "neural networks get disconnected," "the birth of new neurons is inhibited," and "hippocampal neurons become endangered." Translation: brains under chronic stress will have trouble learning new things and committing new material to memory.

In a 2006 study, researchers at Arizona State University noted that long-term stress withered the dendrites (neuron branches) in the hippocampus, and decreased dendrite length and branch numbers. Dendrites provide the avenue along which new learning takes place and hippocampus injury (central to memory functioning) leads directly to learning impairment.

None of this is good for the adult brain, but children's fast-developing brains with dendrites numbering in the millions are especially vulnerable to ravages of cortisol. Study after study has found that children who are exposed to extremely stressful situations — via violence in the home or corporal punishment — have significantly lower IQs than children not exposed to such traumas.

But newer studies suggest it's not only extreme kinds of stress that can affect kids' ability to learn and think. In 2009, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University scientists found that kids exposed to "household chaos"  had  lower IQ and more conduct problems. A joint study between Harvard Medical School/McLean Hospital and Catholic University of Korea in 2009 found that children who experienced maternal verbal abuse had lowered verbal IQs and less white matter in their brains. (White matter affects learning by coordinating communication between different regions of the brain.)

 

Stress: it's catching

Is it enough for parents to keep the house in order, avoid spanking (and other corporal punishment), and refrain from verbal abuse? This is certainly advisable, but experts suggest that this may not be enough to protect your child from stress-related brain drain in the home. Parents' own stress levels can affect their children's cognition because tension is "contagious," explains David Code, author of Kids Pick Up On Everything: How Parental Stress Is Toxic to Kids. Cole asserts that in extreme circumstances, parental stress can weaken a child's brain development.

John Medina, author of Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School echoes this sentiment: "The emotional stability of the home is the single greatest predictor of academic success. If you want your kid to get into Harvard, go home and love your spouse."

Parents may do their best to protect their children from stress, but sometimes life's twists and turns make stress unavoidable. Luckily, experts say they aren't calling for parents to cloister their children in a stress-free bubble.

Can you cure stress with more stress?

Instead, they say, it's good to expose children to the right kinds of stress and teach them ways to deal with the potentially harmful kinds.

"Not all stress is bad," claims Steven Finkbeiner, professor of neurology and physiology at the University of California, San Francisco. "The act of 'learning' is a stress of sorts on the brain, but this sort of mental stress can be good… [it] can lead to the production of factors that support neuronal health and synapse formation."

It's also important to note, these experts say, that it appears that damage to children's brains caused by stress might not be permanent. "Stress effects are not 'brain damage' but reversible or treatable," claims Bruce McEwen, neuroendocrinology researcher at The Rockefeller University.

A powerful antidote

The cure? All of the experts GreatSchools contacted seemed to agree. "Exercise," says McEwen, pointing at studies that claim physical activity stimulates hippocampus growth, and group exercise (think team sports lke soccer and games like tag) fosters neuron development.

Medina concurs: "Exercise is one of the best things children can do to combat stress. It increases neurons’ creation, survival, and resistance to damage and stress." Monica R. Fleshner, Ph.D., integrative physiologist at the University of Colorado, also agrees, explaining, "maintaining regular physical activity is one way to help promote both stress resistance and stress resilience."

It makes sense, doesn't it? Eons ago, our ancestors boldly reacted to danger using the fight-or-flight response. Afterward, they celebrated their victory with cardiovascular dancing and chest-thumping. Moonlight dancing isn't required to relieve your child's stressed-out brain, but exercise, in its myriad forms, has remained the best tension relief for humanity's offspring. 

Hank Pellissier is a freelance writer whose fiction and essays have been been widely published and anthologized. A former columnist for Salon and SF Gate, he is a regular contributor to h+ Magazine.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

02/21/2012:
" I think that nowadys ,there is much question about stress but i think that in my school,thers is no such stress.the reason is this that if you plan from a future about the academic then no any child will get stress.you have to plan at lest ten years earlier about future then no child suffer . if you want top know more.i cAN SHARE "
02/16/2012:
"Thank you for the valuable information. Excersise is the best way...... It helps stay physically and mentally healthy. "
02/13/2012:
" What has happened since the 1950's? It's never talked about publically, it would be politically incorrect. In 1962, prayer was taken out of the public schools, the ten commandments were taken off the walls. Chronic stress in children and adults also comes about when there is uncertainty and no boundaries accepted as a norm for the group. Everyone does their own thing . . . I don't have to follow your rules if I don't agree with them. My way of thinking and behaving is OK with me! Who are you to tell me what to do? Our country, our form of governance and our judicial system is all founded on Judeo-Christian values accepted and agreed upon for centuries. It worked on many levels. Our form of governance and our system of values work so well that millions of people have immigrated to this country over the last 200+ years, seeking stability, freedom from oppression, religious freedom as well as freedom to determine their course in life. It was not only safe, it was a land of opportunity. I am a public school nurse and I can tell you, children don't feel safe at school today. I am in a middle class suburban elementary school. One of five elementary schools in the district. There is a "quiet room" in every single school. A room to bring children who are out of control; throwing chairs, books, shoes at the teacher because he/she has been told to put the cell phone away, or some other instruction that seems reasonable to you or I. Children out of control, throwing temper tantrums at the age of 7 or 8. Now (at age 6,7,8+) it's called Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Children are afraid of their "peers", never knowing when an outburst will occur. Children cover their ears to shut out the screming and crying as the offender is carried off to the "quiet room". Recently in CT, a parent blew the whistle on this procedure that has become the norm children with "behavioral disorders. Her child came home crying one day because she could hear this other child shreiking and screaming obscenities for over an hour down the hallway. I am hoping that every school nurse that has a "cry room, a quiet room, a time out room" in his/her school will speak out about their use. My 8 year old neice has been given a diagnosis of ADHD. We all new this but the process must proceed. She was also given the label of ODD. My sister has worked very hard with this child's willfulness, difficult to manage behaviors for 6 years now; with the result that J is pleasant to be around. Hard work, no drugs. Old fashioned rules and expectations of good behavior with appropriate consequences. This child has never been spanked. Hard work of both parents as well as support/respite provided by family and friends is what has worked. It takes good parenting with the support of extended family to raise children. We are seeing what society looks like when we let the village raise the child. Children are experiencing chronic stress because they don't feel safe. "
02/7/2012:
"My child has been primarily physical since an infant. Her body has needed and craved motion and physical release. Her mental and verbal development always came second to her physical development. A child is made to learn from tactile activiites and their imaginations into their later childhood. My daughters school from kindergarten takes their physical recess and play time away, as their number 1 form of manipulation. To make children do what they want them to do. The more physical ones are loosing not only their one child like activity, but you can see from this article a major coping mechanism. My child has always played on the loud side, but I have noticed her banging her toys together and just a high physical and emotional level after school. Now I know she is compensating because she is not ready emotionally and mentally for what the schools shove at them now. People who study child development know that in certain grade levels the material and the child's br! ain are in 2 places. They know that the kids brain wont even recognize what it is being taught till 8 1/2 yrs and older. The kids are only just turned 8. "
02/6/2012:
"I have some comments from statistical point of vew: When looking at households and noting, that in those with more order and lesss stress/ abuse, children where much smarter, I am wondering if parents IQ - the major hidden variable, was taken into account. It is very probable, that smarter people tend to have more orderly, less stressful households for their children, but they also pass their "smarter" genes to the very same children, so, in fact, not amount of stress, but good old genetics is the major factor. Honestly, in civilized countries, mother needs to be an idiot, to verbally abuse her child, I am sorry. So, if parents IQ was taken into account, then article should say so, if not, then it is doubtful results at best, and show you, how easily staistics can be misunderstood and misleading. Please note, I am not promoting stress by any means. "
02/6/2012:
"Way to promote your barbaric philosophy that we evolved from nothing!! If you are going to write an educational article, please do not insert evolution as fact, as it is a theory that takes a lot of faith. Also, I hope that parents will take this as a kind word from God- my "theory" that has actually panned out! The part of the article that makes sense is the portion that speaks about stability in the home. People get divorced because they are just sick of this or sick of that (I'm not speaking of physical abuse) and they want to "move on." By divorcing, we are proving to our children that we ourselves will not stay in a challenging environment when it really matters. Adults continually talk about how money won't make you happy, yet that is what we are showing our kids by working tirelessly to make money at any cost. It is backwards. Children have no stability at home... divorce is rampant and their parents won't submit to God by learning from our difficult situations and becoming who He wants us to become, for His glory. It is not always about us! God's way always trickles down to our children and the best of everything, even if we don't see immediate fruits. The mos! t difficult things are the monotonous things, the things that are in our lives day after day such as our children and spouses. These things should take precedence, even if they don't always fulfill "our" needs. If people would again submit to God's direction, He fulfills our needs when we submit to Him, and He takes care of our children- He made them!! "
02/6/2012:
"so true "
02/6/2012:
"The unchecked media barrage and raw youtube footage students must etch in their minds by taking quizzes on the details of trauma they have just seen is also sickening in the same way berating and belittling is. When I grew up, we did learn about what was going on in the world but were quizzed on the discussion afterwards about what powers that be and what precedents have been set to remedy current event issues. In this exercise we became assertive citizens finding where the weaknesses were in the system and what we each might do as a career to fill in the gaps and make positive impacts. Now, there is no time for discussion? Well, the consequences are putting children into free fall or making them uncomfortable in their own skin. TMI with no solutions in a steady feed is ABUSIVE and DESTRUCTIVE. Best methods needs to train teachers that it is imperative to present the solutions as imperfect as they are and have the discussions quizzing on further thoughts for solving t! he problems that should be presented to powers that be. Ideas put to good use should in turn give credit and a hand up into power for students who had thought of the ideas. "
02/6/2012:
"Humor has been found to be a tremendous relief of stress. So, even when all seems unsurmountable, and stress is overwhelming, try to find something (no matter how twisted) that is funny about the situation (fleeting as that funny may be). Laughing releases seritonin, as does exercise, and can alleviate many of the other negative detributes related directly to stress. "
02/6/2012:
"Very useful information for parents and teachers. Thanks to Great School. "
02/6/2012:
"Yes kids are under alot more stress today, having their innocence stolen to quick with all the junk on TV, I net, x-box etc...I don't think their minds can take it (to much to young). Anyway fish oil and vit D, healthy eating, the right amount of sleep can help w/stress. "
02/6/2012:
"Interesting studies and suggestions devoid of the role music can play in keeping the savage beast tamed. Strange. Of course stress is not unique to children. Older stressed out folks with a little common sense are discovering a long energetic walk can save you hours of counseling and trips to the pharmacy. See Music and the Mind, and "The Mozart Effect". "
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