Stories about: stressed kids

Talking trumps texts: Hearing mom’s voice can reduce stress levels

American children are more stressed out than their parents, according to a recently released survey by the American Psychological Association. But when it comes to helping kids overcome all that stress, can the sound of a mother’s voice be just what the doctor ordered?

In some cases, yes, according to a study that looked at how varying types of mother/daughter interactions affected stress levels in a small group of preteen girls. The girls were asked to solve very difficult math problems in front of an audience of intently watching adults. When they finished, each girl spoke with her mother: either face-to-face, over the phone or via text or instant messenger. During these interactions, researchers studied the hormonal balance of each child, noting instances where hormones linked to strong emotions were produced.

When compared with the group that only had digital interactions, girls who saw their mothers, or at least heard her voice over the phone, had lower levels of cortisol—the “stress” hormone—and higher levels of oxytocin—affectionately called the “love hormone.” (When we hug or kiss someone, our oxytocin level spikes. It also acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain, playing a large role in how our brain processes our bonding relationships.)

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The science of stress

Adolescence is a hard time for just about everyone. School pressure, changing relationships, craving the independence of adulthood while clinging to the security of childhood; it can all lead to a lot of emotional turmoil. But while the stress of growing up may be almost universal, how teens handle it varies wildly.

Data shows that poor reaction to stress can lead to the onset of mental illnesses and associated problems like substance abuse or antisocial behavior. In many cases, the first signs of these disorders surface when the person is feeling stressed. Research also shows that adolescents who have experienced trauma or adversity when they were younger, like the death of a close relative or abandonment by a parent, are more likely to have mental health issues triggered by stress, compared to people who have never faced that kind of hardship.

Even though there’s plenty of research linking stress and early adversity to mental disorders, there are very few studies looking at how the two are connected. Why does early life adversity or trauma make some people more prone to mental illness, especially when dealing with stressful situations? And if warning signs are identified early enough, can these problems be avoided? These are questions Boston Children’s Hospital researcher Kate McLaughlin, PhD, is trying to answer. McLaughlin, along with Margaret Sheridan, PhD, are analyzing how teenagers’ brains react to stress. The project involves over 200 adolescents, some with mental health issues and some without, as well as teens who have experienced early life adversity and others who haven’t.

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How childhood stress can lead to adult depression

MccarthyClaire111408Childhood should be a happy time, not a stressful time—that’s something everyone can agree on. But for many children, childhood is very stressful. Family tragedy, natural disasters, poverty, abuse or exposure to violence (in the home, in the community, or when the country is at war) are just a few examples of what can turn childhood from a dream into a nightmare.

This is terrible for children. It’s not just a matter of robbing them of happiness; more and more research is showing that stress early in life can actually change the way a child’s brain works—for life.

A study in the journal Nature Neuroscience this month helps us understand why. Researchers stressed baby mice (by separating them from their mothers daily for the first 10 days of life). The mice that had this early life stress behaved quite differently from mice that didn’t. They showed signs of anxiety and had trouble learning—even a year later. The researchers tied this to a change in a gene that caused increased production of a certain brain chemical (arginine vasopressin). This in turn led to increased production of corticosteroids, a stress hormone, and to disruption in the parts of the brain that control mood and learning.

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Do you know how stressed your child is?

stockphotopro_25358MVX_no_more_studying_The American Psychological Association (APA) released results from a survey that reveal that parents are out of touch when it concerns their kids’ stress levels. The APA reports the greatest stress sources for kids are related to school pressure and family finances, and that parents often underestimate how stressed their kids really are. We talked to Children’s Hospital Boston psychiatrist Stuart Goldman, MD, about how parents can help manage their child’s stress and how they can be more in sync with what’s bothering their kids.

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