NPR just reported a new study that points to the importance of helping children name and manage their emotions. The study reported in the Journal of American College of Cardiology found that emotional distress during childhood, even in the absence of high stress during adult years, can increase the risk of developing heart disease and metabolic disorders such as diabetes in adulthood. The data was from a large study tracking 6,714 participants from ages 7-45.
The surprise in the study was exactly how much these early experiences of childhood stress were linked to future health. I think it’s a surprise only in the sense that we discount childhood stress. We tend to minimize childhood stress not believing it has real significance. We say things like, “They’ll get over it” or “It wasn’t that bad”. And we’re relieved when kids don’t talk about it because we truly hope that all is well. Sometimes this is the case because kids can be resilient. This is especially true of kids who possess easy going temperaments. These kids are able to meet new experience with ease while other kids who are temperamentally reticent or cautious will fare less well with challenging situations.
I’ve seen many instances with children where early disturbing experiences have lingered, increased or become somatic. Disturbing experiences generate strong emotions, and they affect our body and our behavior. I remember one little girl who was devastated by a harsh remark from a teacher. She developed a school phobia which no one understood because up to that point she had loved going to school. She didn’t tell anyone about being upset, but the remark undermined her confidence. Her solution was to avoid school, so that no one would see her incompetence.
Similarly, I saw a young boy whose teachers and parents complained was oppositional. He had a loving home and sympathetic teachers, but his behavior was a puzzle. I soon learned that he had undergone a frightening medical procedure in which he had to be restrained. After his initial hysterical crying, he calmed down and everyone thought he was okay. However, this experience lived in his body and was revealed by his pushing people away and being uncooperative. His trust had been compromised and adults were seen as untrustworthy.
Another young girl had sustained multiple separations from her mother which were sudden and mysterious. Little had been explained to her, and although she seemed fine, when her mother returned she became clingy, had trouble sleeping and wouldn’t let her mother out of her sight. Her fear of abandonment had surfaced during these separations, and she couldn’t tolerate any additional ones.
This study is another reminder of how important it is to take our children’s emotions seriously. When you know that something disturbing has happened to your child, make sure to check in and mention the experience a few different times. This lets them know that you’re aware of them and concerned about their well being. You can state that disappointments and scary experiences are hard for everyone. Normalizing a child’s feelings is calming. Haim Ginott, in his classic book Between Parent and Child says, “Strong feelings do not vanish by being banished.”
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