Dr. Gautham's

Neuro Centre

(Established in 1988)

A Neuro-Behavioral Medicine Clinic

Dr. Gautham's Neuro Centre
4/68 P C Hostel Road
Chennai, Tamilnadu 600031

ph: +91 98410 10197
alt: +91 44 4285 9822








Child Stress

Stress is a function of the demands placed on us and our ability (or sometimes our perceived ability) to meet them. While the stress response is vital for our survival, too much stress has deleterious effects on many aspects of our physiology, including immune responses, the cardiovascular system, and our reproductive abilities. It is less well appreciated that excessive stress also compromises the nervous system.


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The effects of stress are mediated by several molecules, including the glucocorticoid  hormone, hydrocortisone. Hydrocortisone is synthesized in the cortex of the adrenal gland, where it is released into the blood stream. Similar to most steroid hormones, hydrocortisone is a water-insoluble molecule, and this fact leads to several important differences between this family of signaling proteins and the growth factors that were recently discussed.

Steroid hormones exert much longer-lasting responses than do peptide hormones, growth factors, or neurotransmitters. To become soluble in the bloodstream and other extracellular fluids, most hormones bind to specific carrier molecules that help to transport them throughout the body.


A great deal of work has been done to determine the effects of stress and the effects of glucocorticoids on neuronal functioning, in animals. The short-term consequence of excessive amounts of glucocorticoids or stress is actual atrophy of dendritic processes. The damage appears to be most prevalent on pyramidal neurons in the CA3 region of the hippocampus, a region that is vital for many cognitive skills including memory. This atrophy is reversible. Remove the stress or hormone, and dendritic processes gradually grow back. After long-term stress, however, neurons begin to die. Obviously, it is not possible to conduct these studies in humans.


Stress in childhood often come from  sources such as family, friends, or school. Stress can affect toddlers who feel overwhelmed. A 2-year-old child, for example, may be anxious because the person she needs to help her feel good - her parent - isn't there enough to satisfy her. In preschoolers, separation from parents is the greatest cause of anxiety. 


As children get older, academic and social pressures (especially the quest to fit in) create stress. In addition, well-meaning parents sometimes unwittingly add to the stress in their children's lives. For example, high achieving parents often have great expectations for their children, who may lack their parents' motivation or capabilities. Parents who push their children to excel in sports or who enroll their children in too many activities may also cause unnecessary stress and frustration if their children don't share their goals.


Your child's stress level may be raised by more than just what's happening in her own life. Does she hear you talking about troubles at work, worrying about a relative's illness, or fighting with your spouse about financial matters? Parents need to be careful how they discuss such issues when their children are near because children will pick up on their parents' anxieties and start to worry themselves.


Also consider that complicating factors, such as an illness, or a divorce, may be causing your child's stress. When these factors are added to the everyday pressures kids face, the stress is magnified.


A Dysfunctional family is stressful for parents and children alike. Although children's emotional reactions usually depend on their age, many children of dysfunctional families experience feelings of sadness, anger, and anxiety - and it's not uncommon for these feelings to be expressed in their behavior.    



A dysfunctional family brings with it a lot of changes and a very real sense of loss. Kids - and parents- grieve the loss of the kind of family they had hoped for. Parents should never put kids in a position of having to choose sides or expose them to negative comments about the other spouse. Parents should always operate in the best interest of their child.




How can you decrease the stress your child feels over the changes brought on by family issues? Mainly by learning to respond to her expressions of emotion.

Invite conversation. Your child needs to know that her feelings are important to you and that they'll be taken seriously.

Help your child put her feelings into words. Your child's behavior can often clue you in to her feelings of sadness or anger. Let her voice her emotions and help her to label them, without trying to change them or explain them away. You might say: "It seems as if you're feeling sad right now. Do you know what's making you feel so sad?" Be a good listener when she responds, even if it's hard for you to hear.

Legitimize your child's feelings. Saying things like, "No wonder you feel sad" or "I know it feels like the hurt may never go away, but it will" lets your child know that her feelings are valid. Encourage her to get it all out before you start offering ways to make it better.

Offer support. Ask your child, "What do you think will help you feel better?" She might not be able to name something, but you can suggest a few ideas - maybe just to sit together for a while or to take a walk or to hold a favorite stuffed animal. Younger kids might especially appreciate an offer to call Daddy on the phone or to make a picture to give to Mommy when she comes at the end of the day.

Expect that your child's adjustment could take a while. Some emotional and behavioral reactions to the stress of divorce last for months or even a year. Some may be much more temporary, lasting only until the situation stabilizes and a child's routine can be re-established.  


It's also important to remember that these responses do not necessarily indicate permanent problems. Most of the time children's emotional concerns following divorce are temporary, if handled with sensitivity. Being attentive to the signs your child sends about her feelings can help you to help her cope with them.