From the Heart and Stroke Foundation

Just say the word childhood and you might conjure up images of building snow forts, playing musical chairs, or chasing friends in a game of tag - everything we miss so dearly about being a kid. But being young isn't always fun. There are times when kids face frustrating homework assignments, pressure to make the sports team or anxiety about fitting in with the neighbourhood kids. While these issues seem small to us now, when we were younger, they seemed so important. It can be stressful to be a kid, and Dr. Terry Wade, the Canada Research Chair in Youth and Wellness, is currently being funded by Heart and Stroke Foundation to look into how that "There's been some good evidence linking life stress in adults to high blood pressure and heart disease," he says. "It makes sense that if it has this effect in adults, it might have a similar effect in children."

Stress and kids' heart health
For now, it's difficult to say how childhood stress might affect heart health later in life. However, Dr. Wade says that there has been some research showing that stress in kids is linked to behavioural problems, such as acting out and starting fights, as well as mental illnesses, like depression. "If stress is affecting kids at a behavioural and mental health level, why wouldn't it be affecting them on a physical level?" He hopes to answer this question within the next four to five years, when he gets the results of his research.

girl with homework

Any child can experience stress
The Psychology Foundation of Canada says that stress can start affecting children as young as four years of age. Generally, the younger a child is, the more protection he or she has from the outside world, like a safety blanket. When children start school, their parents slowly stop being the centre of their universe. Friends and school become increasingly important and that's when they'll be exposed to a lot more opportunities for stress, Dr. Wade says.

Stress affects children from all different social backgrounds. Here are some of the triggers that any child could face: 

  • Bullying
  • Poor performance in school
  • Fear about losing in sports competitions
  • Pressure of trying to fit in with other children in the neighbourhood or at school
  • Exposure to fighting at home
  • Awareness of stress in their parents

Watch for the signs
So, how can you tell if your child is stressing out? Dr. Wade says that the physical symptoms may be similar in kids as in adults - sweating, increased heart rate, feelings of anxiousness. However, the way that kids deal with these feelings could be quite different, so Dr. Wade advises parents to watch for any sudden, abnormal behaviour in their kids. Have they started dressing differently or stopped taking care of their hygiene? Are they less talkative than before? Are their marks dropping? "This could put up a flag for parents to be concerned," Dr Wade says.

Be a helping hand
It's important to help children overcome these issues. Even though they may withdraw from talking at first, the best thing parents can do is keep up the conversation in a helpful and non-confrontational way, Dr. Wade says. "Children may be more negatively affected by stress because they haven't built a wealth of tools to help them deal with it in a healthy way," he says. "Teaching children how to deal with stress can only be a good thing."

Physical activity can help lower stress levels and it's also good for the heart, so help your child get 30 to 60 minutes per day, on most days of the week. Also, give them time for free play, encourage them to bond with an animal or suggest other ways of dealing with stress. Helping kids cope with stress is important, and parents can play a big part in the process, Dr. Wade says. "Communication, understanding, empathy, these are the sort of things we as adults need and expect to help us deal with stress, and it can certainly be helpful for kids, too."

Learn more about the link between stress and heart disease.

Posted: April 1, 2008

Heart and Stroke Foundation


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