Parenting During Intensely Stressful Life Experiences

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Traumatic experiences in early childhood actually affect how the brain organizes itself. Infants and young children require a relatively calm environment for their brains to develop in a predictable fashion. Children's brains develop best when they experience moderate exposure to stress while under the protection of a consistent, available, and safe primary caregiver. Exposure to highly dramatic, sudden, unpredictable, or threatening experiences requires a child's neuroendocrine, immune, and nervous systems to respond in a way that helps him cope. If this response happens too frequently or randomly, it can have a permanent negative impact on him, leaving him with a poor ability to control his emotions and moods or to think and learn properly.

There are many examples of potentially damaging acute or chronic stress. All of these can have an impact on a child's physical, cognitive, social, emotional, or behavioral health and development:

□ Serious work pressures on one or both parents.

□ Financial woes or in-law conflicts or problems.

□ The diagnosis of a chronic illness in the child.

□ Mental or physical health problems, or drug or alcohol abuse in a parent or close family member.

□ A marriage that was strained before the birth of a child and is now stressed further by typical difficult toddler behaviors.

□ A father who feels shut out or ignored by the mother-and-child relationship or because the mother has no energy for the marriage.

□ A mother who believes the father is not supporting her daily struggles and is jealous of the conflict-free relationship the father has with his young child.

□ Young parents who feel trapped by the loss of independence that comes with the responsibility of child rearing.

□ A working mother who gave up her job for a while and resents the financial strain this causes.

It is not at all surprising for a child to act out the stressors within the family by showing extreme behaviors. These behaviors usually occur during the period after an explosive time, when the home seems at least temporarily peaceful.

The kinds of stress described above are a fact of life in many households. If they exist in yours, your child is not automatically doomed to a difficult life. Here is what you can do to mitigate the effects of chronic or severe stress:

□ APPLY PRINCIPLE #1 CONSISTENTLY AND DOUBLY. A kid feels safer and more open about her feelings if he feels that his mother and/or father is "in-tune" with her. Use touch, eye contact, and sensitive warmth liberally. Kids living in stressful home environments need this desperately.

□ TELL YOUR CHILD ABOUT THE TRAUMATIC OR STRESSFUL EVENT. If she doesn't have a factual explanation, a child will often "fill in the blanks"—many times with horrible and fantastic inventions that can be worse than the reality. Explain to your child what is going on in a way appropriate to her age. This may cause a great deal of sadness, but it will teach her a meaningful and satisfying way to come to terms with highly emotional events.

□ GIVE DETAILS ABOUT THE TRAUMATIC OR STRESSFUL EVENT. Children benefit from understanding the reality of their lives. Honesty and openness help your child develop trust in you. Give her an age appropriate "who, what, where, why, and how" about the stressful event. Placing the crisis in context and reassuring your child that you will still be there for her helps her cope with the bad experience in a healthy fashion.

□ EXPLAIN YOUR EXPRESSIONS OF HIGH EMOTION WITHOUT APOLOGIZING OR BLAMING. When there is a marital or family conflict, parent or child illness, or a parent-child conflict, your child may see this as a risk to the future availability of her attachment figure. You can help your child's perception of how threatening the stressful events are by explaining why you expressed high emotion (screaming, weeping, rage, etc.) without blaming yourself, her, or others. Explaining the source and context of your high emotions, helps her understand that the expression of emotions does not mean that abandonment is imminent.

□ PROVIDE A CONSISTENTLY PREDICTABLE FAMILY ROUTINE. Your child should have a set pattern and routine to her day including a consistent time for playtime, meals, chores, naps, and bedtime. When her schedule must change, make sure you tell her ahead of time and explain why. She will feel safer if she believes you are in control of her situation.

□ GIVE YOUR CHILD CHOICES. When a child feels out of control due to a stressful situation, offering her a choice of something she can control (what she eats, what she wears, etc.) allows her to feel safer. In addition, allowing her to do something to help out during this difficult time can be very healing as it allows her to follow Principle #3 and learn how to feel satisfaction from helping others. Even if the job has nothing to do with the situation causing the stress, an extra chore will give her the sense that she's contributing during a challenging period in her household.

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