August 19, 2014 By Alexandra Zissu, Editorial Director
If you’re busily stressing out about getting your kids ready and scheduled for the impending school year, stop. Researchers orders! A new study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison has identified a surprising environmental toxin that can damage developing brains and have lifetime effects on mental functioning.
The culprit? Stress.
Researchers found that children exposed to chronic stress had smaller amygdalae and hippocampuses. Huh? These are areas of the brain involved in learning, memory, and the processing of emotions. These changes could negatively impact future behavior, health, and even things like employment and relationships. Not what any parent wants.
This study is the most recent in a growing body of research suggesting parents add stress to the list of unhealthy environmental influences to protect children from. Don’t neglect lead paint, BPA, and phthalates. Just add on childhood stress, which scientists say can physically damage the body and has been linked to many of the same conditions typically blamed on chemical exposures, like cancer, diabetes, mental dysfunction, and immune disorders.
A study published this summer by the Harvard School of Public Health, for example, discovered that children born to mothers who experienced stress during pregnancy may be a greater risk of developing allergies and asthma. In March, researchers at the University of Florida presented evidence demonstrating that kids who experience three or more stressful events are six times more likely to suffer from a mental, physical or learning disorder.
These studies show that children often feel more stressed out than their parents perceive them as being. And back-to-school season is surely a trigger. Why? Just check out these key sources of childhood stress:
- being over-scheduled
- fear of failure
- unclear or unreasonable academic expectations
- pressure to perform beyond one’s abilities
- changing school situations
- unstructured classroom settings
- excessive screen time
- exposure to on-screen violence
Here’s what parents can do to protect their kids from stress as the school year begins—beyond having a safe, consistent, and reliable home life. (Bonus: the following will help mom and dad de-stress, too. More down time means less carpooling, need we say more?)
- limit over-scheduling—that means afterschool activities, parents!
- make sure children have plenty of free “down” time
- monitor TV viewing, web sites, and computer games
- encourage physical activity, a good diet, and adequate rest
- encourage your child to express concerns, fears, and to ask questions
- give your child opportunities to make choices, exercising control of their life
- build up your child’s feelings of self-worth with encouragement and affection
- involve your kids in situations and activities in which they can succeed
- provide plenty of exposure to nature; a whole other body of research is showing that being outside helps combat stress