Is Your Toddler Stressed Out?
Doctors are now being urged to check babies' stress levels at well-child visits. For infants and toddlers, how much stress is too much?
Weight, height, head circumference and…stress level? According to recent recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics, doctors nationwide are now encouraged to begin screening babies and toddlers for symptoms of “toxic stress” during well-child visits.
From reading about what exactly the AAP wants docs to check young children for, it’s clear that there’s stress — things like crying because a toy is taken away or experiencing separation anxiety at daycare drop off — and then there is toxic stress, defined as prolonged stress or trauma without a caring parent or adult caregiver there to intervene. Babies and toddlers who have a mom with severe, untreated postpartum depression are at risk for toxic stress, as are young children who experience abuse, neglect, and extreme poverty.
There are, of course, many reasons why immediate intervention is needed in these kinds of dire situations. But what’s finally spurred the AAP to make stress screening a standard part of well-baby check ups is information that’s emerged about the long-term effects of toxic stress on children’s mental development. To keep it simple: too much stress is bad for babies’ brains.
According to the Harvard Center for the Developing Child, constant stress — and constant exposure to stress hormones — can weaken the architecture of the developing brain by reducing brain cells’ neuro-connections. In turn, this can lead to long-term consequences for learning, behavior, and both physical and mental health. Even as adults, exposure to toxic stress during childhood appears to put people at higher risk for stress-related diseases, including heart disease.
At this point, you’re probably thinking the same thing I was after first reading about toxic stress. If too much stress is so bad for young kids, then it’s our job as parents to make their lives as stress-free as possible, right?
On the flip side of this issue are all the many reasons why dealing with manageable amounts of stress is a very important way babies and toddlers learn problem-solving skills and self-reliance. Even something as basic as placing your baby’s favorite toy just out of reach as an incentive to get her to crawl to it is using stress in a positive way.
So when does stress become negative? For starters, when there’s no loving care giver around to step in and help when things go haywire.
“Children grow up in an environment of relationships,” neuroscientist Pat Levitt, Ph.D. told Southern California Public Radio in an interview about the stress screening recommendations. When feeling stressed, an infant or child will do something (i.e., cry) and will have an “expectation of getting a response from whoever is in their environment.”
Figuring out whether it’s good stress that your tot can handle on his or her own, or making the decision to intervene, may simply be a matter of “being close and warm and nurturing and looking directly into your child’s eyes,” said Levitt.
In the interest of science, I tried this tactic a few minutes ago when my youngest daughter came to tell me for the 100th time today that she couldn’t find her doll’s favorite dress. All morning, I had told her absent-mindedly to keep looking for it. But then I took a look at her and realized that she had worked herself up into a state of distress, and you know, she just needed to find the doll’s dress. So we did, with a plan to keep the doll’s blue polka dot party frock in an easier-to-find location next time.
Now she’s worried that her doll isn’t happy because what Marlene the doll really wanted was a new dress.
I’ll do everything in my power to keep toxic stress out of my daughter’s life. However, when it’s a doll that feeling stressed out?
That, she’ll have to figure out on her own.
Does your toddler ever get really stressed out? How do you handle it?
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