As adults, we accept that stress is a reality of daily life and do our best to manage it – but stress affects children, too. The source and severity of stress can vary, and it can affect the mind and the body – notably their digestive system. Here’s how to help your child manage stress and feel their best.
Stress happens when you feel as though life’s demands exceed your ability to meet those demands. For many children, stress is synonymous with worry and can be caused by big changes they might not feel ready for, like a new school or a sibling on the way.
Stress may be acute or chronic. Acute stress typically lasts a relatively short period of time and resolves – in children, it may manifest as a tantrum. Chronic stress extends over a longer period of time and may be associated with a variety of physical symptoms in children – notably digestive discomfort.
The stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol impact many body systems, and can have a profound effect on digestion. When we are stressed, these hormones tell the body that digestion is no longer a priority. As a result, stomach and intestinal activity is reduced. The body decreases blood flow to the gut and reduces peristalsis (the contractions that move food along the digestive tract). It’s the perfect storm for tummy troubles – and that’s why it’s not uncommon for children to experience stomach pain, constipation or even diarrhea when stressed.
If you suspect that tummy troubles are connected to worry or stress, there are a number of strategies that may help your child manage. First, take a look at their diet and ensure they are getting lots of fresh, whole foods. Giving their little bodies the right amount of nutrients will help them to better deal with life’s challenges.
To reduce stress on the digestive system, cut down on sugary foods and snacks, and identify and eliminate foods they are sensitive to (cow milk, eggs and wheat are common culprits).
Talking with your child can go a long way toward putting their problems in perspective. When children get the opportunity to vent their frustrations and concerns, it can help them feel better physically and emotionally.
And while talking is important, so is action. With regular exercise, chemicals called endorphins are released in the brain. Endorphins have a tranquilizing effect and bring pleasurable relaxation, naturally. Regular activity also promotes better sleep, which also helps children navigate emotions.
By paying attention to the connection between children’s mental and physical health, you are teaching them valuable lessons about the mind-body connection. Food and activity may help build emotional resilience and contribute to the relief of the signs and symptoms associated with stress.