Aug. 30, 2021
Effects of stress on children
You need to listen to kids and learn how they are feeling, because you often won’t know until you ask.
There’s one foolproof way to ease a child’s stress — especially during the pandemic: give them your attention, say childhood health experts.
Taking the time to listen patiently to kids and engage with them puts you on surer footing in terms of understanding what’s going on with them emotionally, as well as helping them to build the kind of resilience that will help them grow into healthy, well-adjusted adults.
You can hear three childhood health experts share their wisdom, tricks and tips on an upcoming online panel, Effects of Early Childhood Stress on Development, running at noon on Oct. 6 as part of Alumni All-Access. Register now
The panelists include paediatric consultant Dr. Janice Heard, MD’84; renowned childhood stress researcher Dr. Nicole Letourneau, PhD; and Patty Kilgallon, RN, chief executive officer of the Children’s Cottage Society, which nurtures children and families through prevention programs and services.
Discover the keys to child and family wellness
“The most important thing parents and grandparents can do to support their children is to take time for them when they are experiencing stress,” says Heard, a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Paediatrics in the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM). “Having an adult who is empathetic and who gives the child coping strategies to help them deal with how they are feeling is one of the keys to child and family wellness.”
There are three kinds of childhood stress that parents, grandparents and caregivers should be aware of: positive stress, such as learning something new at school and meeting new people; tolerable stress, which is the next level of intensity and includes things such as moving houses or parents getting divorced; and toxic stress, which can be all the above, but also include child abuse — neglect, family violence, addictions, and maternal or paternal depression.
With proper adult attention and care, the first two can help to strengthen resilience, which is the psychological capacity to recover relatively quickly from life’s difficulties. The third, toxic stress, can be overcome, but, if left unattended, it can insidiously undermine a child for their lifetime, says Heard.
Learn how to strengthen resilience
“We are born and programmed with a certain amount of resilience,” says Heard, who has been named to the Order of the University of Calgary, is a 2021 UCalgary Arch Award recipient for Alumni Service, and a paediatric consultant for the Calgary Urban Project Society and Community Outreach of Paediatrics and Psychiatry in Education.
“Toxic stress is stress that occurs in the absence of supportive adult relationships that help children to cope,” says Heard. “People can build resilience and mitigate stress with the right support, which can also come from parents and other caregivers, but also from coaches, babysitters, teachers — anyone who provides a safe environment for learning opportunities and who is responsive to the child.”
You can reach out online to learn more. The Alberta Family Wellness Initiative offers support and resources to help children, families and communities build resilience, including an online Brain Story Certification course.
The pandemic has undercut, in many ways, the supportive aspects of “it takes a village to raise a child,” says Heard.
On the one hand, families have been required to spend more time together as schools and businesses transitioned to working from home last year, but it has also pulled asunder the ties to coaches and other third parties who would otherwise be there to check in on a child and be able to tell parents or caregivers if they notice, say, that a child is withdrawing.
“Don’t assume,” says Heard, who is also board chair and president of the Children’s Cottage Society. “You need to listen to kids and learn how they are feeling, because you often won’t know until you ask.”
As for returning to a degree of normalcy as the rate of vaccinations has risen, Heard says parents and caregivers need to encourage kids to get out now and do activities with others, and that doesn’t mean just being online with their electronic devices.
Explore the 'serve and return' basics of healthy interactions
Letourneau, a prominent researcher and professor in the Faculty of Nursing and CSM — and one of the most-followed nurses on Twitter in the world – says the return to school is best buffered by parents and grandparents and other family members simply taking the time to talk with their children.
“You want to talk to them in a way that will create an open channel to share any concerns or questions that they may have,” she says. “We need to be emotionally available to our kids and bear in mind that there might be some anxieties associated with going back to school.”
The most basic guidance Letourneau offers is for parents to be aware of "serve and return" — the interaction between parent and child that begins in infancy and continues throughout early childhood. If, for example, a child serves up a cue such as crying or eye contact, does the parent respond and, if so, how?
“You want to keep the interaction going,” Letourneau says. “The child wants to know that that there is someone there who pays attention to them, who will meet their needs and protect them and keep them safe. Someone who values their cues and what they say, instilling in them the feeling of being cared for by someone who will have their back.”
Uncover the ways children develop
Experiences from conception to age six have the most important influence of any time in life. Letourneau underscores this in her Attach Intervention research and program at the Owerko Centre in the Alberta Childrens' Hospital Research Institute (ACHRI). She helps parents understand what their child is thinking and feeling in the moment, getting parents to tune into their thoughts and feelings to be more sensitive and responsive.
Her VID-KIDS project provides video feedback-interaction guidance for depressed mothers to respond to their children. Maternal depression is a focus of Letourneau’s work; her team has developed an app to help moms with postpartum depression.
“The concept of serve and return starts with newborns, but it persists throughout life and the importance of responding to the child’s cues can’t be overstated,” Letourneau says.
Alumni All-Access (previously known as Alumni Month) runs from Sept. 16, to Oct. 6. Discover what’s on the roster this September.
Child Health and Wellness
The University of Calgary is driving science and innovation to transform the health and wellbeing of children and families. Led by the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute, top scientists across the campus are partnering with Alberta Health Services, the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation, and our community to create a better future for children through research.