Quit Pathologizing Children’s Stress

emotional intelligence 

By Ashley Patek

Quit Pathologizing Children’s Stress

I have noticed a trend among parents, educators, and the collective, especially on the coattails of a pandemic. We are pathologizing kids’ stress, labeling their behaviors as wrong, broken, or bad. We find ourselves in a labyrinth, trying to figure them out and make behaviors stop. But is it the child or the stress that needs examining? 

When we step back and look in, we may find that children are acting normal to abnormal circumstances. They are displaced and have experienced big changes, stress, and, for some, even trauma. 

Research has shown that children who feel unsafe and disconnected cannot learn. Why is this? Children are born with their threat detection and feeling centers fully developed. When they detect a threat, their lower, fully-functioning brain centers override their higher, learning centers. This is how their body is designed to keep them safe. 

When there is prolonged stress, hormones such as cortisol become chronically elevated, which sensitizes the reactive parts of the brain that cause our children to fight, flight, freeze, or fawn in the face of even minor stressors. Stressors may include: 

  • Being off routine
  • Feeling tired or hungry
  • Emotional overwhelm 
  • Sensory over or underwhelm
  • Adverse experiences
  • And more

Prolonged stress can be toxic to the growing brain and interfere with brain development, reducing hippocampal and cortex volume (the parts of the brain that we want our children to develop over time for skills such as impulse control, problem-solving, and emotional regulation). 

Under a child’s challenging behavior is a message. They aren’t unmotivated, defiant, manipulative, or any other label that is often slapped on them. They are children who are dysregulated - whose bodies are doing exactly what they are designed to do: survive. 

The best way to soothe an excessively reactive limbic firing is through social-emotional learning. This isn’t a silo of education where you do a few lessons, check off the checklist and you’ve arrived. It is a life-long journey where learning is sprinkled into everyday, real-time moments. This may look like:  

Social-Emotional Learning is multi-generational. As we teach our children, we begin to rewire limiting patterns from our youth and peel back the layers to our own triggers. Just as powerfully, our children are a vessel, carriers of information that influence us, too. 

Whether you are a parent or educator, the experience with the child in front of you is relational. When we see the whole child, we can look beyond behavior alone and begin to address the stress that is affecting the child. It is then we can look through the scope of three vital questions: 

1) What is the expectation the child is having trouble meeting?

2) Why are they having trouble meeting this expectation? (This is usually due to an unmet need, lagging skill, or neurologic reactivity due to stress.)

3) How can I empower the child? (This is their process and our role is to guide and influence it, not control it.)

Children are not problems to fix, and their behavior is a symptom of something larger. When we learn to listen through this lens, children feel safe, connected, and empowered, and this is the foundation for all else. 

•  •  •

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