It is believed that even the youngest child can sense tension in the immediate environment and/or in caregiver(s). Stress clearly has an impact on one’s mental well-being with more and more research suggesting “…that children who are mentally healthy are better able to meet life’s challenges. They are also better learners and have stronger relationships” (Kids Matters Webinar, 6 April 2016).

Some stress can be viewed to be positive, e.g. alerting to imminent (potential)danger. It is short-lived and gradually dealt with. Examples include an injection or meeting a new person.

Other stress can have more serious impact, usually due to more severe or long-lasting difficulties. This may include a critical illness and/or painful injury with or without hospitalisation, natural disaster, loss or long-term separation from a loved one. On an even higher level, toxic stress occurs “…when a child experiences strong, frequent and/ or prolonged adversity, such as physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, caregiver substance abuse or mental illness, exposure to violence, and/or the accumulated burdens of family economic hardship” (Center of the Developing Child, Harvard University).

Any response to stress results in elevated cortisol levels in the brain and the more severe or prolonged the stress, the longer the elevated chemical levels in the brain persist, affect not only the brain but also the body. For a developing brain at an early age such prolonged elevated chemical levels can cause adverse, even permanent changes to various systems in the body (e.g. immunity, digestive) as well as the brain, potentially impacting memory, attention and emotions.

Learning how to cope with disappointment, difficulties, and hardship is part of growing up. However, while that learning process is in progress, children rely on supportive relationships from adults around them to buffer the physiological impact of stress. Hence, significant adults parents, close family members, early childhood educators, domestic helpers, etc. need to be aware of their own stress coping mechanisms since they need to use them in order to (i) be that supportive adult that the child needs at a time of crisis and (ii) may eventually teach to the child.

Clearly, it is crucial to recognise the stress levels in a child’s life and to prevent or alleviate the levels as soon and effectively as possible.

Have YOU de-stressed today?