There are several different types of stress that children might experience, each of which affects children in their own unique way.
What is stress?
Stress in a mental health sense refers to any psychological strain that causes worry or anxiety in children while inducing a physiological stress response. When a child is experiencing stress, it results in the release of stress hormones such as cortisol, which narrows focus in the brain and primes a child’s body to react. They enter a hyper vigilant state and become more focused on the source of stress, which is great when dealing with a limited, immediate stressor that needs attention, but it’s also why severe or chronic stress can be so disruptive to their lives.
Chronic stress occurs whenever there are persistent, ongoing stressors in a child’s environment. Chronic stress can be especially impactful because it raises a child’s cortisol levels and keeps them there, so they get little opportunity to return to a calmer baseline state. When chronic stress persists over extended periods of time (a year or more) it can lead to neurological changes that leave a child more sensitive to stress or actually result in a type of physiological brain damage, lowering IQ and hampering higher cognition.
Examples of chronic stress can include…
- Living in poverty
- Frequent moves or environmental instability
- Living in a chaotic home
- Foster care or institutional placement
- Ongoing bullying
Acute stress is that which arises in response to isolated events. It may be felt much more intensely, but it comes and goes, allowing a child’s brain to return back to its baseline state. So long as the stressor is properly comforted and overcome, it has no long-term impact, and is typically even beneficial for children, helping to foster mental strength and resiliency.
Examples of acute stress can include…
- Having to move homes
- Being challenged academically
- Having to give a speech or performance
- Fighting with friends or parents
- Being teased
Attending summer camp or spending time away from home.
It’s important to note that the distinctions between acute stress and chronic stress aren’t always so clear, and many things a child might experience fall under both categories. For example, most divorces are both an acute stress and a chronic stress for children: the initial breakup of their family can be quite traumatic for kids, but it’s also frequently followed by changes in a child’s life and environment (rigid custody schedules, frequent transitions, the inaccessibility of one of their parents at any given time, etc.) that result in chronic stress which persists for many years.
Likewise, having to move homes once or twice during childhood would typically qualify as an acute stress. But if the new environment isn’t as ideal–say, a child struggles to make friends or is bullied in the new home–it can all too easily morph into a chronic stress environment.
Traumatic stress is a loosely defined term used to describe stress that arises in response to traumatic events. It involves extremely high levels of acute stress. In some cases the stress may be so extreme that it induces PTSD symptoms like flashbacks, nightmares, and intrusive memories. (See the trauma section of our website for more information on PTSD and traumatic stress.) Examples of traumatic stress include:
- Experiencing a serious, life-threatening accident
- Being shot or seriously attacked
- Living through a natural disaster
- Surviving a terrorist attack or school shooting.
A lot of the stress children endure is experienced vicariously through other people. Fear and anxiety can be transferred to children from those around them, and kids can experience stress through third-person exposure to an upsetting event.
The main source of vicarious stress comes from parents and caretakers. “Children absolutely sense parents’ stress,” says pediatrician Kenneth Ginsburg. (Jayson, 2009) So when caregivers are stressed, they inevitably transfer this stress to children. Vicarious stress can also come from the media, teachers and other adults, or a child’s peers. Here are some examples of vicarious stress:
- Exposure to news coverage of a terrorist attack, epidemic, or some other concerning development
- Experiencing family financial struggles or a parent losing their job
- Parental depression or mental illness.