Four decades of research illustrate that many children who are exposed to chronic stressful experiences such as poverty, family chaos, and various types of abuse, often develop physical health problems as adults. Diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, autoimmune diseases, obesity, strokes, and an increased risk of viral infections are linked to chronic stressful experiences during childhood.
Children who experience extreme stress during childhood have no choice or power to change their situation. Regardless of what they do or think, they can’t minimize their exposure. Often, the parents of these children can’t change their situation either. They may be unable to increase their socioeconomic status or control extended family chaos.
Here are 6 things you can do to minimize stress in children to improve their long-term physical health
1. Be a healthy role model for your child
Research indicates that children who grow up with a positive role model have fewer negative health consequences as adults.
A study reported in Nature from 2012 found that healthy adolescents who live in families with low socioeconomic status were found to have higher incidences of inflammation.
However, those adolescents in this group who had supportive role models did not show signs of inflammation. So, if you as a parent value patience, communication and education, take the time to understand your child’s learning style. Support their academic challenges and strengths by helping them to organize study materials, homework, and school projects.
Demonstrate patience and communication by using the “Praise-Correct-Praise” approach to encourage your child, rather than punishment.
2. Provide High Maternal and Paternal Warmth
Maternal and paternal warmth is provided as long as the parent communicates with their child, starting from early infancy, in an affectionate, attentive, gentle, and caring way. This early maternal/paternal care has been found to protect against “detrimental biological responses in adult life” and reduce stress in children.
Fortunately, providing a warm communication style toward a child is free and unlimited. It costs nothing to give your child praise, hugs, smiles, attention, and time.
3. Help your child recognize and express emotions.
When one is able to understand and express how they feel, they can better cope with emotions. They can more easily communicate with others about life experiences. Those without this ability tend to suppress emotions, cope poorly with stress, and often develop behaviors such as anger outbursts, isolation, depression, or despair.
Physical symptoms such as neuroendocrine dysregulation, high blood pressure, and early death are also influenced by emotional suppression. Talk with your child. Expressing your feelings and sharing how you cope with anger and frustration can help reduce stress in children. Children who interact with adults who express emotions in a healthy way learn to cope and connect, rather than isolate and suppress.
Talk with your child about resources such as talk therapy and support groups that are available if they feel a need to talk with someone. Some children (and adults) are reluctant to admit they need to talk with someone about how life is going.
Support your child by decreasing any fears they may have about admitting they do not feel right. Let them know there are outpatient options and they should not fear “getting locked up” for feeling angry, hurt, nervous, or depressed.
Support their motivation to reach out and utilize counseling or support groups.
4. Stay involved
Regardless of how “busy” you are, it is imperative to send a clear message to your child that they are important. It may not be possible to attend every school meeting, sporting event, musical concert, or play, but you can stay informed about what is going on.
Ask your child about band or basketball practice. Ask about how school is going. Even if you do not get elaborate answers, continue to ask. Don’t be indifferent.
Parental indifference can contribute to physical health problems such as stomach aches, migraines, and gastrointestinal problems. Children who do not get parental attention or their needs responded to can also form emotional distress, causing problems with attachment, delinquency, and poor emotional control
5. Understand the link between depression, school dropout, and physical symptoms developing later in life
Depression can lead to school dropout which can result in negative chronic physical symptoms throughout adulthood.
Research found that one in every three students who dropped out of school experienced significant depressive symptoms within three months of leaving school. Once the student drops out, negative events continue. Research looking at the quality of life of those who dropped out found a variety of chronic physical symptoms.
Data from 6,612 students (ages 13-20 years old) found that students who dropped out of school experienced an increase in reported illnesses and disability between the ages of 24 to 29 than students who were high school completers.
This finding was “independent of own health, family and socioeconomic factors in adolescence.”
6. Be mindful of the differences between when your child is alone and when your child is lonely.
Alone time for your child can be good. It allows your child time to think, create, rest, and recharge their physical and mental energy. Feeling lonely is different. Children who experience prolonged loneliness report feeling stressed, disconnected, isolated, and separated from others.
Some children report that their body actually hurts.
Long-term loneliness can lead to physical illness later in life such as alcoholism, Alzheimer’s disease, neuroendocrine and immune system deficiencies. Be mindful of what your child is experiencing. Is alone time for your child refreshing? Or, do you notice behavior changes indicating depression and disconnection from peers and usual activities?
Early intervention to interrupt childhood loneliness may reduce stress in children and prevent long-term physical consequences.
Knowing what to do can help willing parents protect their children and help them develop effective ways to cope. Regardless of your socioeconomic status, extended family chaos, or your own childhood experience, you can provide a buffer for your children.
This buffer can prevent children who grow up with chronic stress from developing long-term negative physical health consequences.