The Seriously Scary Toll Stress Takes On Kids’ Brains

Last Update: September 7, 2021

Applying to college is a time-consuming and challenging process that, for many teens, seems like it will influence the rest of their lives.

It’s stressful, no doubt. And it’s not just high school seniors that are feeling the pressure: 83 percent of kids complain that school is a significant source of anxiety, according to the American Psychological Association.

After years of refusing to admit we have a problem, Americans are getting more comfortable with the idea of stress management through therapy, yoga, meditation, and being more conscious. But while adults are ohm-ing their way to a more balanced lifestyle, there is one population getting left in the dust: kids. And stress is seriously affecting their well-being.

In children, stress is caused by almost any situation that forces a kid to change or adapt—and that means that it isn’t always a bad thing. After all, learning a new skill or idea is stressful in its own way. But unresolved stress is the kind that can really be detrimental to children’s health, both immediately and in the long term.

Three levels of stress

Stress can be divided into three levels: positive, tolerable, and toxic, according to the Center of the Developing Child at Harvard University. Positive and tolerable stressors could include anything from meeting a new caretaker to experiencing a serious injury like a broken bone. In both scenarios, the heart rate rises, and the body secretes cortisol and adrenaline. But a stable adult  could help children calm down and learn how to manage stress in these cases.

Toxic stress, however, can come as a result of frequent or chronic exposure to situations that kids don’t have the emotional maturity to deal with on their own, and often don’t have a reliable caretaker to help them cope. Abuse, chronic neglect, parental instability, illness, or other recurring stressful situations can trigger toxic stress responses in children who don’t have the protection of a stable relationship with a parent or caregiver.

Everyday effects of stress

Because kids aren’t fully equipped to deal with emotions on their own, sometimes they can’t even tell when they’re experiencing anxiety or stress. Where an adult could probably pinpoint a rough day at the office as the cause of a forehead-splitting migraine, a child can’t relate bullying at school to the onset of stomach aches, nightmares, bed wetting, or stuttering.

In reality, these symptoms, as well as temper tantrums, crying and whining, aggressive behavior, and lack of interest in normal activities are all warning signs and side effects of unresolved stress in children.

Lower IQ levels

Personality changes and a lack of interest in Xbox aren’t the only symptoms that parents should be worried about. A study released by Virginia Polytechnic University reveals that children who are exposed to high anxiety and high stress situations in chaotic households have lower IQs—and it could be due, in part, to continuously elevated cortisol and adrenaline levels.

Cortisol, in particular, could prove to be the biggest enemy to little developing brains. Over time, high levels of cortisol destroy the hippocampus area of the brain, which can lead to children feeling depressed, anxious, fearful, immature, needy, and unable to learn new behaviors. Long story short? Chronic stress will leave kids unable to learn over time, which can set them back years in development.

The stress-chronic disease connection

It’s no coincidence that as rates of reported anxiety and stress rise, so do allergy, asthma, and diabetesStudy after study proves that there is a link between elevated stress levels and the manifestation of chronic illness.

And for kids, these maladies can mean a lifetime of drugs and healthcare that could potentially be avoided if stress is handled in a more manageable way.

So what can a parent do?

Psychologists agree that parents are the most important line of defense against childhood stress. A caring and empathetic caretaker can assuage fears and teach kids how to cope with stressful situations as they come up.

Another helpful tool for managing stress and anxiety? Exercise. Regular physical activity can maintain stress resilience—all you have to do is just watch a kid kick a soccer ball down a field for a few minutes to notice a difference in their mood and attitude.

Overall, parents need to pay attention to how they manage stress too—after all, your kids mimic everything that you do. Set them up for a happy and successful future by helping them manage normal stress in a healthy way. They’ll thank you later!

Illustration by Foley Wu

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Michelle Pellizzon

Certified health coach and endorphin enthusiast, Michelle is an expert in healthy living and eating. When she's not writing you can find her running trails, reading about nutrition, and eating lots of guacamole.

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