As adults, we are no strangers to signs of stress, whether it be an accelerated heart rate or a rise in blood pressure.
These shifts are usually noticeable, alerting us to the fact that something is not right. Our blood sugar levels rise, and if we pay attention, we will notice that our pain threshold increases. Now imagine these responses in a body much smaller than yours. Imagine what stress feels like in the body of a child.
Most functions of children’s daily living should not require a dramatic stress response. However, if stress is left untreated, over time these biological changes can interfere with learning, mood, appetite and brain development.
How Psychotherapy Can Help Children
Psychotherapy to address stress can help children and teens move through significant life events such as the death of a family member, friend or pet, a divorce, a move, physical or emotional abuse such as bullying, or a major illness in the family.
Any one of these events can lead to significant challenges with behavior, mood, sleep and functioning at school or home. We know that healthy brains continue to develop through the mid-20s. We also know that stress on developing brains, whether chronic or acute, presents a unique impediment to children’s growth.
Stress raises cortisol levels and, in studies involving lab rats, daily injections of cortisol were shown to kill brain cells, leaving the rats to feel depressed, anxious, fearful, needy, and unable to learn new behaviors. Children who are exposed to chronic stress and who have elevated levels of cortisol have difficulty forming new neurons, which equates to difficulty learning and absorbing material to memory.
How You Can Help Your Child
In addition, as much as you try to hide it, a parent’s own stress can affect children’s cognition in subtle ways. It is never too soon to begin modeling for children the importance of seeking help when we need it. Therapy can help children get a head start in learning to cope with stress, whether that be stress related to school, such as test anxiety, bullying or peer pressure, and before unmitigated anxiety blossoms into emotional and behavioral issues.
Recent statistics show that suicides amongst adolescents have quadrupled since the 1950s, two-thirds of 7th graders polled were unable to agree with the statement “I am happy with my life,” and the use of pharmaceuticals to treat emotional disorders is up 68 percent for girls and 30 percent for boys.
A qualified therapist can help children learn to identify and describe emotions, develop vital problem-solving and emotional regulation skills, and increase the capacity to tolerate distress. If your child could benefit from psychotherapy, please contact Well Clinic.
About the Author
Ali Psiuk is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) at Well Clinic with a specialization in child therapy.
According to Ali, “We are all naturally equipped with a drive towards health and wellness but sometimes we get stuck and need to reach for outside support. Never lose hope. Psychotherapy can help.”