Stress and Challenging Life Experiences in Early Childhood

“Stress is involved when you have demands on your body, or when your expectations of those demands exceed your ability to control them.”– Megan Gunnar

We know that there are many sources of stress in our lives. In an order full of sources of stress, one of our greatest desires is to protect our children against stress and offer them a stress-free life. Yes, as parents and adults, we may want to protect children from all kinds of stress. But how possible or how true is that? To be honest, protecting the child against all kinds of stress and offering them a stress-free life is neither possible nor the right parenting attitude.

Normal stress experiences experienced in the normal course of development prepare the child for adulthood. You can compare it to first encountering the flu or getting a vaccine. Minor sources of stress in everyday life also prepare children for other challenging life events in life. Which of us hasn’t had worries like “Will I make it” or “Will she like me”? It is part of our nature to want to achieve something and to care about our relationships with other people. In this process, what parents and us adults can do in the face of the stress experienced by children is to help children understand their feelings, to support them in trusting their perceptions, and to offer guidance when the expected response from the child exceeds its current capacity. For example, you can include a child whose need for socialization you realize in new environments and playgroups to socialize. You can teach him social skills within your own family relationships. However, you need to trust him to resolve conflict with his friend and guide him to acquire the skills and equipment necessary to manage conflict-related stress.

So far everything is fine. But sometimes, as described above, the demanded behavior is far beyond our individual capacity and environmental resources for adults and children alike. For example, experiencing severe pain or a sudden and intense emotional experience. This type of stress has very negative effects on the functioning of the brain and our quality of life. In this case, it is necessary to support the child and protect it from the stress factor. For example, you cannot leave a child exposed to violence alone for self-protection. In this way, the stress factors related to the violation of personal boundaries or events that expect a response beyond the current capacity become traumatic or toxic stress. At this point, the guide for an adult, mother or father is to distinguish whether the stress experienced is normal or traumatic for the child. In the normal and tolerable stress process, it is necessary to both give the child an opportunity and make him feel that he is with him. However, in the face of severe, sudden and serious life experiences that sabotage the child’s development and personality, it is necessary to take control and provide the child with the full protection and reassurance he needs. For example, it is vital to provide full protection and reassurance to a child who has been immersed in violence, abused, and recovering from a serious illness. Yet we must do so by respecting their individuality and believing in their strength.

Ordinary stress and tolerable stress are life experiences experienced during normal development, the course of life, and in the presence of a trusted adult. Crying because she is very hungry, spending sad and stagnant hours because she could not take care of the third police car that she already had at home even though she liked it so much, anger, frustration or disappointment at the rejection of friendship by a friend with whom she wanted to communicate a lot, is a situation that will have to be separated from her father. The feeling of longing felt throughout the week… Sometimes the loss of a loved one… Some of these examples are the breaks that we all experience during the normal development process, while some of them are slightly more challenging experiences that some of us have to go through on the path of life: such as the loss of a loved one. But sources of stress in this dimension are also not intolerable. In the face of loss, which is an experience inherent in the nature of being human, it is the presence of a reassuring adult who is grounded and has emotion regulation skills that will maintain a child’s mental balance and build the capacity to repair. If the adult can function as a calm harbor during the child’s challenging experience, the child will develop an equipment for dealing with difficult stressors. The message he gets will be: “Yes, it’s a really tough situation. My mom/dad/teacher/aunt is struggling too, they’re upset. But they can handle it. I trust them. We can live with it.” In time, the child will develop an equipment to cope with stress and difficulties and will be prepared for life with this equipment. For this reason, protecting your child from all kinds of stress is not a realistic solution. Throughout our lives, we have experiences that are likely to be difficult. The important thing is to be equipped to cope with the difficulties. The development of this equipment is to trust the child in ordinary stresses and to offer him a reliable and solid guidance in the stress sources that we observe a little more challenging and open his capacity. Neither leave it alone nor offer a suffocating “you are inadequate” message. The right message: “I see you, I hear you. You’re doing your best. I’m proud of you. But sometimes it’s really hard to hold on. That’s when I’m with you. Trust me.”

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