Tessa Grigg (PhD) and Marianne Schriever
Dr Tessa is the Research and Education Manager at GymbaROO-KindyROO. She has worked with children from babies to primary school-aged children and has taught in the area of child development to adult students. She is interested in children’s brains and how we can help children to reach their potential. Her PhD was focused on Primitive Infant Reflexes and their relationship to learning. Marianne Shriever has also worked with children for many years and has been responsible for teacher training at GymbaROO-KindyROO.
The wide-reaching effects of the pandemic are starting to show in our children, and at GymbaROO-KindyROO parents are asking us about a range of behaviours which appear to be their child’s response to stress. This article identifies how childhood stress may be presenting itself, and looks at ways parents can help their children gently move through this time. Parents have also been concerned as some children, who were coping well during the lockdown, are experiencing some quite big behavioural wobbles as the restrictions are been lifted. It is most likely that what was a reasonably calm, insular environment has turned into a more chaotic situation with busy parents, time commitments and increased interactions with other stressed humans. This can be very challenging for children to navigate. As parents, the main thing to remember is that the behaviours you are seeing are not likely to stem from a lack of good parenting. Everyone is doing the best they can in a situation that is beyond their control. Please remember this and be gentle with yourself. Remember you are not alone – many parents at this time, are managing stressed children.
The lockdowns that many families have experienced are creating significant, but often underlying stress for everyone. Maybe a loss of work, or working from home with young children, unwell relatives…the list is long. Evidence indicates that stressful experiences for babies and young children can have long term effects on their physical, emotional, social and academic development 1, 2. This is not meant to scare you, it is meant to help you understand that this is a problem that needs to be taken seriously and that there are strategies you can put in place to reduce the effects of childhood stress. When children regularly experience chaos or stress, for example, repeated COVID-19 related stresses, their brains become wired to react quickly to threatening, stressful experiences. Even after the threat is removed, the brain may continue to respond as if the stress is still present. Children whose brains have been wired by prolonged stress may overreact in some situations. Prolonged stress may lead to learning difficulties, delays in brain development, and later difficulties coping with life’s demands 1. To understand how you can help your child, it is first important to understand a little about brain development.
Information about the brain and stress
The brain stem is responsible for the most basic functions necessary for survival. It is the first part of the brain to develop, and the first to react to perceived threats. The brain stem sends signals to other parts of the brain. In a fully developed adult brain, the frontal lobe takes action and chooses a rational response to the threatening situation.
Young children, whose frontal lobes are not fully developed, cannot respond rationally to stress. Children’s responses to stress are controlled by the more primitive areas of the brain. To handle stress and return to calm, young children need caregivers to comfort and reassure them that they are safe. If the environment is constantly, chaotic, stressful or threatening, or children do not have a reliable caregiver, they will rely on the primitive areas of the brain to handle stress. The brain stem will become over-developed, and areas responsible for emotional control and rational decision-making may not develop fully. Warning signs of an imbalance in brain development due to prolonged stress may include anxiety, impulsiveness, hyperactivity, poor impulse control, lack of empathy and poor problem-solving skills. However, initially, it can be as simple as the development of a fear of heights, when pre-lockdown or other stressful events, this was not an issue.
What can parents do to help a stressed child?
If you notice or suspect that your child is displaying signs of stress, go out of your way to make activities as pleasurable and relaxed as possible. Interact with your child in a manner that projects optimism and an understanding that you can help him/her handle the situation. Build in activities that are both achievable and fun for the child, and give plenty of positive feedback, rewarding any efforts. This will help to motivate the child, keep their attention and perseverance going and arouse curiosity to hopefully attempt more. Ensure that plenty of opportunities are given for repetition, and try to create opportunities where newly acquired skills can be implemented in different situations to encourage problem-solving.
Stressed children need many movement opportunities. Movement experiences help to increase the release of dopamine, one of the brain’s most important neurotransmitters. Dopamine is released when an experience is pleasurable. Positive emotions cause dopamine to travel to more parts of the brain and additional neurons to be activated. Dopamine and the resulting ‘feeling of good’, helps the child to learn. Include some of the following in your daily routine:
• Time in the park, or a child-paced walk around the block, if you are allowed outside.
• Create movement opportunities inside – obstacle courses, movement games and online GymbaROO-KindyROO.
• Make music together with kitchen implements
• Doing chores together, from the earliest of ages, makes kids smarter and happier thus reducing stress. Read more here. Playing Baroque music, such as Mozart, can be calming for a child, as is a massage and firm cuddles.
Ensure that your child is eating a well-balanced diet filled with as much fresh, whole food as possible. Keep food as close to the source as you can This way the child is getting as many nutrients as possible which will help the body manage stress. High sugar foods or highly processed foods are low in nutrients, provide hollow calories and give little to no support for a stressed brain and body.3
Importantly, make sure you are taking good care of yourself as well so that you are available for your children. It is a challenging time for everyone, but together we will make the best we can of this situation.
At GymbaROO-KindyROO we send our prayers and kind thoughts to all the parents out there navigating these uncharted waters. You have our support, all you need to do is ask (our Facebook Page is a place to make contact, or you can contact your local GymbaROO-KindyROO teacher directly).
There has been a very strong message in New Zealand throughout this. Our Prime Minister told us all to ‘Be Kind’. Be kind to yourself first and then be kind to your child.
1. Thompson RA. Stress and Child Development. Future of Children. 2014;24(1):41-59.
2. Johnson DE, Guthrie D, Smyke AT, et al. Growth and associations between auxology, caregiving environment, and cognition in socially deprived Romanian children randomized to foster vs ongoing institutional care. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. 2010;164(6):507-16.