The experiences a child faces in life may result in pressures that cause physical, chemical, psycho-emotional or behavioural reactions of a wide variety depending on the nature of the child.
By Dr Raoul Goldberg
BSc (Med), MB ChB (Wits), CEDH (Hom)
Are children today experiencing more stress than in previous times?
It is well documented that the incidence of a wide spectrum of childhood illnesses and disorders has increased significantly over the past decade. In South Africa one in five to six children suffer from some form of allergic disorder, and 15 – 20% of schoolchildren are affected by eczema.1 Childhood diabetes and obesity occur far more frequently and at younger ages than ever before. 2 The autistic spectrum disorder which includes autism and attention deficit disorder (ADD), has increased sevenfold in the past decade and ADD is the most common and fastest-growing childhood disorder in the USA.3 Child abuse is rampant at every level of society. The incidence of childhood depression is growing at an alarming rate and suicide in children has increased dramatically.
These statistics may tempt us to conclude that children today are manifesting physical and psycho-emotional disturbances in increasing numbers as a result of the impact of a more harmful environment, and that they must be more severely stressed than ever before. Yet while it is clear that children today are globally facing more severe outer challenges than in previous decades, it would be naïve to think that children in the past were not exposed to stressful situations that also produced disturbances of many kinds. There have always been wars, illnesses, births and deaths. Life brings unavoidable suffering and pain and many children across all time periods have been exposed to harsh experiences. On a smaller scale as a school doctor I encounter today the same signs and symptoms of stress in school learners (anxiety, tummy aches, headaches, fatigue and bedwetting) that I did 20 years ago.
The anatomy of stress
The experiences a child faces in life may result in pressures that cause physical, chemical, psycho-emotional or behavioural reactions of a wide variety depending on the nature of the child. We may call this adaptive response to a positive or negative challenge coming from within or without, stress, and the factor causing the situational change the stressor. Stress is an unavoidable and probably necessary fact of life. Every child will experience it and will respond to it in accordance with his unique constitution and the unique environment in which she lives out her biography. Let us look at the factors, constitutional and environmental, that will determine the widely varying response to stress.
The child meets life with something brought with him from the moment of conception. This is the ground and centre of the child’s very existence, his “I’, his higher Self, which gives him his unique nature, which makes him different from every other individual and directs his life journey in a special way. He may carry within him from the very earliest age characteristic innate qualities of endurance, fortitude, patience, resoluteness, inner strength, or other characteristics such as timidity, intolerance, apprehensiveness, modesty, vulnerability etc., qualities that result in him dealing with stress in his own I-specific way.
The child is also endowed with a particular physical body provided by the inherited physical/chemical substance of his mother and father, For instance his nervous system may be formed in such a way that it tends to function very actively: this child tends to be nervous and hyper-reactive, or his immune system may be genetically coded to work in a such a way that he is hypersensitive to chemical substances: his response to stress will therefore be modified physically and chemically by virtue of his physical-chemical makeup.
Closely linked to the physical constitution is the temperament, which is strongly influenced by the so-called elemental nature of the child.4 The relative proportion of the four states of matter, namely solid, fluid, air and warmth present in the body will determine the predominant temperament. A child who experiences her body as heavy and earthy will have a melancholic temperament. This child carries the burdens of the world on her shoulders and the smallest stress, e.g. someone teasing her, will produce a deep feeling of pain. A choleric child is supported by powerful warmth forces and will find the inner strength to meet the challenge of an abusive teacher. The very watery child has a phlegmatic temperament where the fluid dissolves and rubs away the sharp edges of life’s demands so that she doesn’t seem to be affected by the violent scenes on TV. These children seem to be protected by a surrounding watery sheath as if they were still cushioned by the fluid in the womb. The sanguine child lives in the surges and movements of the air and like a butterfly doesn’t stay long in one place to absorb and suffer the heavy impact of life. They fly away from the impact of the abusive parent and live in a world of make-believe and fantasy.
Temperament is closely linked to the life or etheric forces (chi or prana) which energetically vibrate through the physical-chemical cellular matrix. This system of organised life forces will determine the innate robustness and vibrancy of the child’s constitution and therefore will also modify the response of the child’s system to stress. Thus the feeling of aliveness, wellness, and the power to maintain a healthy system, (essentially a function of the life forces), will allow a child to withstand for instance the chemical onslaught of environmental pollution.
All the above aspects of the child’s constitution, her I-nature, physical body, temperament and life body, together with the effects coming from the environment, will result in the development of a particular personality which is an expression of the psyche. The psyche is made up of a number of internal psychological functions that enable inner experience. These functions are triggered immediately when stressors are encountered.
Firstly the child will experience an unpleasant sensation through the senses, e.g. he hears the aggressive voice of his alcoholic father and this activates feelings of fear and insecurity, which also leads to physiological responses, e.g. tensing of muscles, outpouring of adrenalin, reduced flow of blood to the periphery, increased heart rate, etc. He thinks about this experience and connects his abusive father with danger and thereby learns to associate loud, aggressive speech with feelings of anxiety and insecurity. He then reacts instinctively through his will functions to evade or withdraw whenever his inebriated father approaches.
What does the child do with this experience? He cannot carry it around constantly in his conscious mind, so he pushes it down into his unconscious memory. Where is this memory? We know that these life experiences are stored somewhere in our bodies because we can call up in a flash a particularly unpleasant experience that occurred 30 years ago. Medical science searches for the memory in the brain which is believed to store memory like data in a computer; sadly it will search in vain for memory here, for it is the vibrating resonating life body that is our infinitely vast memory bank. It is here that all our life experiences, good and bad, are stored. Thus when the child hears loud aggressive speech in the future, it awakens memories of the abusive father, and he feels anxious and insecure.
From the above we can see that these different constitutional aspects (physical body, temperament, life body, psyche and I) all have a bearing on the kind of response a child will experience when confronted with a difficult situation.5
In addition to constitutional factors, the environment will cause or profoundly influence the child’s response to stress: the physical and chemical environment will have a positive or negative effect on the child’s wellbeing. Observe how a child enjoys open spaces, playing in nature or in a light airy room, how he will respond to a colourful bedroom and flowers in the home, or how fractious a toddler becomes in a noisy supermarket. It also matters a great deal what the child eats, drinks and breathes. The effect of sugar on child behaviour is well documented and the stressful effects of allergic reactions to environmental pollution is common knowledge for those families living close to industrial complexes.
The environment may also impact powerfully on the child’s psyche resulting either in psycho-emotional disturbances or, through the psycho-somatic connection, in physical disorders. 6 Children today are exposed to a host of stressors that may lead to mild or serious responses, with short or long-lasting effects. Most children today experience some of these pressures, namely the absence of parental support and guidance, parental separation (divorce occurs in 1 in 3 families in South Africa), disintegration of the family unit, peer pressure, educational and teacher pressure, disturbing or traumatic life events such as pain, injury, illness, hospitalisation, death in the family, exposure to violence in real life or virtual life through TV or cinema, and global anxiety fuelled by media and frontline viewing of battle scenes and terrorist attacks. To this list one can add the growing incidence of drug abuse, overt or veiled child abuse, and the premature awakening of sexuality through pornography and promiscuity which lead to serious disturbances in the development of the child. The list is heartbreakingly endless!
Nodal stress points
The normal biography of the child includes specific challenges at different developmental stages, which can lead to stress reactions of different degrees.
The fetus is highly sensitive to changes in the maternal environment. For example if the mother smokes or drinks habitually this will cause physical growth changes in the fetus. Research is beginning to document other factors such as poor nutrition, maternal stress and environmental shock which can cause relative degrees of fetal distress.
The newborn baby emerges from a highly protected and cushioned environment into a harsh material world where it is totally at the mercy of its caregivers.7 The labour and birth experience, being squeezed through the narrow birth canal with the skull often deformed from the pressure, the sudden shocking emergence into a totally new and foreign world, are highly stressful experiences for the baby. No wonder he cries as if in pain, heralding the life of stress that lies ahead. Many babies exhibit varying degrees of discomfort for days or months after birth: constant crying, so-called colic, disturbed sleep, rashes, etc. Careful enquiry will frequently reveal stressors in the immediate environment. However, very often there is no obvious external reason and the discomfort has to do with some disharmony between the spiritual nature of the child and his physical body.
The first 7 year
The first 7 years bring specific challenges. As described in previous articles in Naturally Healthy Children, the child develops in a predictable and orderly manner.8 Physiologically, the neurosensory system grows and matures first. This means that the child lives more strongly in her senses than in any other organ system. She therefore experiences the world of sense impressions very powerfully, soaking in every impression, unfiltered, and unprotected, both the good and the bad. The child who plays with objects of nature instead of plastic toys will develop a healthier nervous system, and exposure to continuous loud noise will weaken the sense of hearing.
During these years the environment will have a deeper impact on the child than in any other life period. Psychologically the volitional functions of the will, the instincts, drives, primitive desires and the will force that keeps the limbs mobile are the most active. When these basic soul needs, the need for warmth, touch, movement, etc. are not met, the child will feel deprived and hence experience stress.
These are also the years during which childhood illnesses and especially fevers are most common. These temporary disturbances in health evoke powerful physiological and immunological changes which are mostly of great benefit to future health.9,10 Learning to sit, crawl, stand, walk and talk are all normal active developmental processes that involve overcoming resistance of one kind or another, each step of the way, which may be stressful to the child.
Entry into nursery and primary school brings with it inevitable crises and stresses as the child is confronted with new challenges socially and scholastically.
Seven: 14-year-old children
The second 7-year period between 7 and 14 years likewise brings its own unique challenges.11 The child now moves from experiencing the world through imitation (sense life) and creative activity (will life) to experiencing it through feeling. The full range of emotions: joy-sorrow, love-hate: are felt more deeply than ever before, making the child highly vulnerable to his outer and inner environment. During this time especially the melancholic child will feel his deep sadness about life and the pain triggered by the bully in his class. The child who is sexually abused may experience the pain, terror and shame so deeply that she will not be able to tell anyone about it.
Frequently the tenth year is very difficult in the child’s life. Every experienced teacher knows that grade 4 is more difficult than previous years. The child is more moody, critical and unco-operative. She becomes aware of her loneliness and fears, she is suddenly afraid of her feelings and feels cut off from her free imagination which unconsciously supported and protected her. My older child was inconsolable on his 9th birthday because he felt he was going to die. My younger child was terrified that her parents would die. This is the year when the child is cut off from the protection of childhood and faces the harsh reality of the material world with the raw vulnerability of heightened feelings.12
Prepuberty and the threshold of puberty bring with it their own unique crises and challenges as the liberated soul awakens through the force of desire, need for movement, of wanting to know and the deep longing for love and acceptance. He may walk a fine line between excessive sexuality, addictive behaviour, striving for power, and oversensitivity, withdrawal and depression.
The fifteenth year is frequently the critical period when choices are made and actions taken that may be decisive for the child’s future.
Managing stress creatively in children
If we remember that the foundations for future wellbeing, optimal health and full human potential are laid in the first 10 years of life, then we as parents and child caregivers need to do all we can to support the stressed child in the right way. The following are some pointers that I have found have worked for me as a parent and family practitioner.
Pay attention to the child’s constitution. One needs to have some picture of the child’s nature before one, according to the different aspects of the child’s constitution as outlined above. The Waldorf school literature offers a wealth of insight into the different constitutions.13-15 A melancholic child will respond differently to stress than a choleric child. With training and experience one will be able to predict fairly accurately how a child is likely to react to stress
Take care of the child’s environment. While socio-economic factors will determine to a great extent the kind of physical and nutritional environment the child is exposed to, there is much that awareness can do to improve the child’s surroundings. Clean air, pure water, wholesome food, and avoiding extremes of temperature will support the vitality of the child. On the other hand exposure to chemical pollution in the air, food or water may lead to allergic conditions such as asthma, hay fever, eczema or food allergies and sensitivities. Poor-quality food may lead to nutritional deficiencies, malnutrition or obesity; regular cooling down of the body through insufficient clothing or antifever medication will weaken the immune system and predispose to recurrent infections.
Be aware of the nodal points of stress when normal stages of the biography challenge the child more than normal. These are times when the child needs more support than usual. Food supplements, tonics, constitutional natural medications and active emotional support go a long way towards helping the child through a difficult period.
Recognize the signs and symptoms of stress as early as possible because if left unattended stress can have a harmful effect on psychological and physiological functions, and may ultimately lead to structural organ weakness. Stress may manifest in a variety of ways, physically or psycho-emotionally:
There may be non-specific signs and symptoms such as tiredness, fatigue, changes in appetite, tummy aches, headaches, sleep disturbances, nightmares, nail-biting, teeth grinding, bedwetting or other signs of regression.
These may or may not be associated with emotional or behavioural symptoms such as moodiness, unusual quietness, irritability, anxiety, new or recurring fears, clinginess, questioning, anger, aggressive behaviour, sudden stubbornness or defiance, regressive behaviour, unco-operativeness or unwillingness to participate in family or school activities.
Stress may manifest through a variety of physical disorders such as asthma, hayfever, eczema, food allergies, obesity, and diabetes. Asthma, for example, may have a physical/chemical allergic causation or it may be set off directly by anxiety. Once present the asthma will result in further anxiety, setting up a vicious cycle.
Ongoing stress may result in psychological syndromes such as ADHD, autism, depression, anxiety disorders, childhood delinquency and many others.[/bul]
Where possible, try to determine the cause of the stress and decide whether it is in the best interests of the child to remove it. It should be realised that stressors may be as positive and helpful as they are negative and harmful. It is well documented that a great deal of short-term stress has a beneficial growth-producing effect on the developing child.1 For many children homework, chores and routines are highly stressful, yet they provide positive character-building outcomes. Childhood illnesses and fevers may be very stressful, physically and psychologically, but after the event the child is stronger and more grounded. Some research claims that cancer is less frequent in children who have had measles and frequent fevers.9 Pain and hardship therefore provide a resistance which the child learns to overcome and as a result develops new skills, strengths and resources.
Deal with the stress effectively. To do justice to this aspect of management I wish to make this the subject of the next article for it is critical that the child is helped to deal with his stress in the right way. Every psychologist and psychotherapist will confirm that many psycho-emotional issues in adults result from childhood stress that was not recognized or adequately dealt with because it requires a certain level of skill and competency to help certain children effectively. Fortunately, however, most of the stress in childhood can be dealt with by non-professionals who are unconsciously skilled and who instinctively possess the wisdom to deal with it. In the next article I will deal with the management of both the professional and non-professional management of stress in children. [/bul]
Provided they are not too frequent and permanent, challenges of all kinds are potentially strengthening. What the child does with the challenge will depend not only on his constitutional makeup and environmental influences but also on the way the caregiver interacts with the child.
1. Segerstrom SC, Miller EF. Psychological stress and the immune system. University of British Columbia, Pychological Bulletin 2003; 130: 4.
2. Goldberg R. Understanding the allergic child. South African Journal of Natural Medicine 2002; 7: 29-31, 92.
3. Debroitner RK, Hart A. Moving Beyond ADD/ADHD. An Effective, Holistic, Mind Body Approach. Chicago, Illinois: Contemporary Books, 1997.
4. Goldberg R. Creative nutrition for healthy children: part two. South African Journal of Natural Medicine 2004; 13: 33-39.
5. Steiner R. The Complete Works. Dornach, Switzerland: Rudolf Steiner Verlag or London: Rulolf Steiner Press, 1997.
6. Goldberg R. Psychosomatic illness. South African Journal of Natural Medicine 2004; 14: 44-47.
7. Goldberg R. Caesarian section: is the rising incidence a cause for concern? South African Journal of Natural Medicine 2003; 9: 49-51.
8. Goldberg R. Protecting the heavenly years of childhood. South African Journal of Natural Medicine 2003; 10: 47-49.
9. Goldberg R. Fever: a gift of health. South African Journal of Natural Medicine 2001; 4: 28-29,60.
10. Goldberg R. Childhood illnesses: a developmental challenge for life. South African Journal of Natural Medicine 2001; 5: 44-45,73.
11. Goldberg R. The three births of childhood. South African Journal of Natural Medicine 2003; 11: 44-46.
12. Lievegoed B. Phases of Childhood. Edinburgh: Floris Books, Anthroposophic Press, 1987.
13. Steiner R. Education of the Child. London: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1975.
14. Harwood AC. The Recovery of Man in Childhood. Spring Valley, New York: Anthroposophic Press, 1982.
15. Harwood AC. The Way of a Child. London: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1974.[/just]