If you want to reduce your child’s risk of major health problems later in life, try to limit severe stress in their early years.
The long-term study followed 6,700 children in the U.K. from ages 7 to 42. Participants reported on their mental health status at several points throughout their lives, and received a physical workup at 45 to check for major health risk factors such as high blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
What they found was both surprising and worrisome. Even when stress levels were lower in adulthood, those who experienced higher levels in their youth were more likely to suffer from heart disease, diabetes or stroke as adults.
Even after accounting for higher risk factors such as socioeconomic status, smoking habits, weight, medication use and diet, increased psychological distress remained a major factor in future health outcomes.
So what is a parent to do?
First of all, don’t panic. Researchers were quick to assure parents that a stressful childhood does not guarantee someone will run into these health problems later in life. This study shows an association between stress and future health; it doesn’t conclusively prove that stress causes diabetes, heart disease or stroke.
We know stress is an inevitable part of life, and we can’t exactly stop all bad things from happening to our kids. Traumatic events will occur to some children more than others, and much of that is beyond a parent’s control.
We can, however, teach our children to manage their stress in healthy ways, which experts speculate can help in reducing future health risks. Teaching problem-solving skills and building resilience in our children so they can recover faster and more completely from traumatic events will set the groundwork for a lifetime of healthy stress management.
Incorporating good sleeping habits, healthy food choices and regular exercise into daily life can all have positive effects on little brains and bodies. The foundations of a healthy life simply can’t be taught too soon; forming these habits now will continue to help them for years to come.
Trust within families teaches the importance of a proper support network, which we all need to carry us through difficult times. It’s important to keep the lines of communication open at home so that children feel they can always talk to loved ones about their worries.
Finally, please seek proper professional help if your child is struggling with mental health issues, or if they need additional support dealing with trauma. There are some issues that are simply too big to solve as parents, and there is no shame in reaching out. (If affordability is an issue, there are often free or sliding fee community resources available for families in need.)
In short, studies like these remind us that childhood stress should be taken seriously. But we need not run around trying to diffuse every anxiety-filled moment a child might have. (After all, bubble-wrapping children comes with its own set of issues!)
Love them, teach them, support them. We can’t always stop the storms from hitting our kids, but we can make sure they have a big umbrella.