Childhood stress – when is it protective and when is it destructive?
There is a fairly simple rubric to figure out whether stress is destructive or protective, and I have provided lots of tips below for the times you decide to step in.
What you find protective stress someone else might find destructive and vice versa. And what is true for childhood stress is largely true for adult stress. I want you to look after you, as well as your child.
When uncontrollable, overwhelming events or situations are traumatic, frequent and have no end in sight the result will be long-term impacts on the brain such as dissociation disorders, post traumatic stress disorder or anxiety disorder. You can see an example of dissociation (not as a disorder) in the linked video below.
Mental illness is a simple result of cause and effect, like the rest of life. Some mental illness is caused by an accident or genes, and some is the result of overgrown coping mechanisms following uncontrollable, overwhelming, repeated trauma that the child (or adult) can see no end to.
Remember that what feels overwhelming and uncontrollable will be different for each of us.
A lot of mums worry about their child going to school or day care. The home environment can be highly protective or highly destructive or anything in between and we’d all be devastated to find our children were being abused, but if you’re reading this I’m guessing you’re one of those parents or carers who is already doing their best to keep the children safe at home and in other places so the next big frontier is to make sure school is a net positive experience.
For some children school is no big deal, for others it is fun and for some it is just something to put up with. But for some children the particular environment they find themselves in at school is genuinely damaging to them.
How can you tell if a situation is causing destructive childhood stress, and when should you act?
Any time that you are concerned about how a situation or event will impact on your child in the long term go through the check list. Is the event or situation:
3. Traumatic (to my child)
4. Frequent and
5. Without a defined end?
Chronic neglect and abuse tick yes to all those boxes, big life events like traumatic divorce or a major car accident tick yes to at least three points. For kids who are bullied at school or constantly getting the message they are not good enough because they have a different way of learning, being or relating, like dyslexia, sensory issues, high sensitivity, ADHD or ASD, the answer to all of those five points can also, sadly, be yes.
So I’ll use that example to have a look at how you might be able to change those answers to no.
1. Can you change the environment or move school to one that is not overwhelming for your child?
2. Can you work with the teachers and principal to develop ways the child can have some more control over their situation?
3. Can you work with your child to reframe events and retrain their behaviours to reduce the experience of trauma? Your RCUR is particularly important here: Reflective, Consistent, Unconditional Regard. Your child needs you to reflect back to them what they are expressing. This helps them clarify and understand what they are feeling.
4. Lots of playtime! RCUR does not mean hovering. It means being available consistently and providing unconditional, reflective regard. One great way to do this is to play with your child. If your child is having a stressful time in a major area of life like school, more structured activities might not be helping. Take the pressure off and give them time to play, on their own, with friends who don’t arouse their fight/flight reaction, and with you. Play time is processing and healing time.
5. Confidence is borne of competence so make every effort to locate and support a child’s strengths. Point them out, celebrate them, support your child to develop areas of competence.
6. Spend time getting to know your family. A child needs a strong sense of who they are and where they fit in. Link your child back through time and let them know how they are strong like amazing Aunty Jane and creative like brilliant Uncle Zac. Tell stories of the struggles of people they love and respect, and how they dealt with them (hopefully very successfully!) Weave them in to their own tapestry so that they can take their proud place in the family tree, strengths, struggles and all. Some families have story telling evenings where extended family visit and tell tales. Magic times like these can make the world feel much safer for children.
7. A mental health professional who really gets kids, is happy to work with you in your situation and who really clicks with your child is a great investment in your family’s well-being. You might only ever need to see them once, or they might be a life-saver through tough times. Get recommendations and look until you find one you love. A big factor in the success of psychotherapy is the therapeutic relationship so go with your (child’s) gut.
8. Speaking of the gut, it is intimately related to our mental health and many parents have noticed improvements in their children once certain additives were removed. Sue Dengate has run trials in schools across the country with interesting results.
9. It may help both of you to develop a simple, regular mindfulness practice. Sometimes we need all the inner calm and strength we can find!
10. School is frequent by its nature and for a young child, looking down the barrel of 13 years is the same thing as ‘no end in sight’. In some states you can work out part time arrangements. You could also spend time looking at the calendar together and writing in upcoming events so they get more of a sense of the chunks of time, and can see short term (weekends), medium term (holidays) and long term ends (finishing school).
11. And there’s always home schooling, if the corners of the square hole will not soften and your round peg just will not fit into that square hole without too much damage!
12. One thing to remember, if you are at wits end, is that nothing is forever. Your child may need a term at home to build up some new skills, rebuild their confidence and be ready to try again. Or two years might see them through a particularly difficult time while peers are unkind and their own self image is in transition. Or a year of part time or distance-education school may be an option. I also know parents who have sent their child to live with grandparents or other devoted relatives for a new perspective. You will know what might suit your child best, and whatever you’re thinking, there are heaps of parents who have done it before you. More than ever before you can find them online and ask for support.
13. Keep all options on the table so that none of you feel trapped, and have your child participate in the discussions and decisions. Be honest about your own needs and restrictions so that they can be a true partner in the negotiations, and because your needs are just as important.
14. One of the most powerful gifts you can give your child is a sense of agency – the feeling that they have some control over their lives. School can be a difficult place to develop this, but it isn’t impossible. It may help to reframe, again, to help your child ask their teacher for specific things and for you to spend as much time as you can at the school. Work in the canteen, provide reading help, volunteer to help the teacher in class, be a part of the P&C… having a special someone around the school often and seeing you navigate that environment with confidence and agency is a good way to help a child develop a sense of agency, or ownership, over their school environment. It will also help you understand what’s going on and what you might be able to do about it.
A sense of agency is one of the prerequisites for moral responsibility and mental well-being. Just knowing that they have meaningful choices over their life can be a great relief for a child who is struggling.
When stress is protective
Stress caused by events that we can control and do not feel overwhelmed or traumatised by, that happen rarely and where there is a specific, short-term end, is protective. In fact we need that kind of stress for our survival. Think of the adrenaline as we wait to step up on stage, take a make-or-break exam or run onto the field to play a grand final. Or the stress that keeps us awake until all hours finishing something for an important deadline.
The human brain and body has been designed to deal very effectively with, and act upon, short bursts of stress. We don’t need to be able to control the event entirely, but if we take some action to improve the situation then there is a good chance that ‘what doesn’t kill us will make us stronger’. Children will take action, and when they can’t find a positive action to take, they will either withdraw or try a negative action.
We are not well equipped to deal with chronic stress
Maybe that’s why we would prefer to go on rides at the fair and watch horror movies than sit in peak hour traffic getting late for work knowing that we were going to be unfashionably late for an important meeting?
This video of two young girls on a ride at the fair shows very clearly what happens to us when we experience events that are overwhelming and that we have no control over.
The girl on the right retains consciousness but is no longer ‘there’, then for a short moment the girl on the left does the same thing. This is a form of dissociation. It is unlikely to have any long term negative impact because they probably chose to go on the ride and they knew it would only last a few minutes, and when they reflected on their experience they likely framed it as a non-traumatic (if scary) event.
So now that you know how to spot destructive stress and protective stress, you can let the kids work their own way through the little knocks in life and step in to help with the real traumas.