The Effects of Stress on the Modern Child, Part 2

Today, I’d like to share what exactly happens to the body when your child experiences stress, and dig deeper into one of the main modern day conundrums families face that may deepen this stress: early separation between mother and child.

The biology of your child’s stress

Here is what is happening from a biological standpoint: your child’s executive functioning, including impulse control and task learning, occurs in the pre-frontal cortex. Your child’s emotional reactivity is carried out by the amygdala. Typically the pre-frontal cortex is the Captain of the ship; however, when under stress, the amygdala gets larger and dominates relative behavior. The amygdala and its fight-or-flight response is activated in a primal attempt, to assure survival. As a result, the critical thinking, pre-frontal cortex slows down, and the stress hormones, including cortisol, are over produced.

The impact of cortisol in the human stress-response negatively affects critical thinking, memory, and the ability to stay on task. Moreover, the over production of cortisol levels narrows the size of the hippocampus, where memory and learning reside. This greatly impairs cognitive behavior. Also, long-term negative environmental stresses such as poverty, can elicit the same stress regulatory system. If stress is sustained and ongoing, it has the potential to forevermore change your child’s brain architecture, including that of the pre-frontal cortex, hippocampus and amygdala. This will affect not only reasoning, impulse, and fear control, but also cognition and task mastery.

Child cortisol levels, early attachment, and stress

Today, your child may spend the largest portion of his day in a nursery school, with a babysitter or a nanny. This has the potential to cause him undo stress and he may grieve the separation. Though nature conspires to keep mother and child attached through hormone production and breastfeeding during the early stages of childhood, our culture encourages early separation of mother from child. Babies in other cultures, where it is the norm for babies to be attached to their mothers, have the ability to learn in a relaxed state because they are always with their mother in those early years. In the United States, mothers go back to work after a few months, or even just a few weeks or days, forcing our children to operate early on from a heightened state of reaction –in a constant strategy of fight or flight mode.

Research tells us that babies who are emotionally stressed from being detached too early from mom have elevated cortisol levels that are sustained, unless there is a positive compensation or positive reattachment between mother and child. If your child never receives the sense of security that comes with early bonding, he may grow into an adolescent who lives in a constant heightened state of reactivity – a constant state of fight or flight.

Compensating for a mother’s absence

Since early bonding is essential to your child’s security and well-being, you must find ways to compensate for the time you spend away from your baby. One of the ways you can do this is to find high quality daycare. Research has found that children’s cortisol is lower in daycare that is of higher quality. These daycare environments may take into account children’s needs when they’re having attachment issues, whereas there is potentially less attention in lower quality nurseries. An even better situation would be if we can create more daycare environments within the work environment, so that mothers can check in with children during lunch time and break times, and have more opportunities to bond and to soothe their babies, lowering their cortisol levels. That would be the best of all possible worlds.

While our Western culture has made early separation from your child the norm, you can find ways to compensate for your time away. And, there are many ways to help your child deal with the stresses of modern day life, starting with taking an active role in your child’s wellbeing from the very beginning.