Stress and Kids


J. Marlando

When I was a child the classroom was split into three sections—Top students…Mediocre students and dumb students. While they don’t do that anymore kids know when they are doing well and when they are not. Back to the subject in a moment—I spent most of my young years in the last row where the teachers seated all the slow learners.  I had a difficult time grasping reading, writing and arithmetic.

What I did most in the classroom was daydream and chew my shirt colors off—I was a nervous kid and the only place I wanted to be was out in the isolated Rockies or in the sanctity of my grandmother’s house. My mom and stepdad fought constantly and divorced and remarried a number of times by the time I was 14 years old. My stepdad—a great guy—was quiet but my mom had what was often called “an Irish temper” and she was constantly screaming and angry about something…really, almost always!

We were also poor as church mice so I guess that added a different kind of stress to m6y life. I just read a recent article from Scientific American Magazine/Scientific Mind. Writer Casey Blair tells us that:

  • Psychological stress affects even very young children and can substantially shape the course of their cognitive, social and emotional development.
  • Stresses that accompany low income directly impair specific learning abilities in children, potentially setting them back in many domains of life.
  • Children from more affluent backgrounds can also encounter stressful situations that weaken their capacity to learn. Reducing stress in young people could improve the well-being and cognitive performance of large numbers of schoolchildren.

In Many ways I could serve as a poster child for enduring stress. Indeed, I could share a number of pretty terrifying tales but I won’t so you’ll just have to take my word for it—my youth was anxiety ridden. In spite of my rather ragged childhood, however, I grew up to ghost entire books for professional people, doctors, lawyers, psychologists, and businesspeople to senators. (Well one senator) and also to be somewhat successful as a theatrical writer, director and producer while in my 30s. I am not boasting. I only want to say that in some ways I overcame the obstacles. In some ways I didn’t, however, and those ways have been extremely costly to my entire life.

I am sharing this especially for parents with small children and those of school age. I was lucky. I ended up okay but other kids who grew up under similar conditions and environments were not—some are alcoholics, some in prison, some drug dependent and some living homeless on the street. (Yes, I know, there are those say it’s their fault, that they are “choosing” their terrible lives but I promise you, this is not the case and such remarks are from blind arrogance—a childhood of serious stress can destine a child to serious problems).

In regard to all this Blair also tells us:  “An even more insidious effect is the assault it can launch on a child's brain, impeding the development of critical cognitive skills. A number of researchers, including myself, have discovered that psychological stress affects the thinking skills and brain development of even very young children, likely beginning prenatally. (This means while the infant is still in the womb).

It is important for parents to fully realize that they are not only caretakers of their children’s bodies but also for their minds and so their hearts. Cussing and screaming arguments between parents overheard by the young children can be devastating—talk about doom and gloom topics in hearing range of the child is to create unnecessary stress in the child’s mind. And, if that child is of school age, he or she will drag that information into the classroom at one level of consciousness or another.

I believe that overburdening a child to succeed, to win or even to do better are all stress-makers. While it is healthy to teach a child the realities of a competitive world at least to the level of the child’s age, I believe that it is unhealthy to push the child toward victories that he or she is not a natural volunteer to desire. In this light, all children should be applauded for accomplishment but never criticized for failure. The child after all is no different than the parent—he or she wants to be loved for simply being him or herself and not for performing well.

Over the years I have actually witnessed parents taking their own frustrations and stress out on their children and sometimes even telling their children their most devastating problems or even “crying on the shoulders” of the child. This burdens the child with undue anxiety casting him or her into the adult world unarmed with adult experience…an adult world in which the child is virtually helpless in anyway.

The best antidote for a child’s stress is, first of all, having the knowledge that he or she is cared about and is living in a secure environment. Separated parents and or constantly fighting parents can reduce the child’s world to total fear and chaos—both factors that increase stress in all of our lives much less the life of a child.

A child that is heavily and/or constantly under stress will typically retreat into him or herself: If he has a healthy imagination he may become extremely artistic or mechanical but if not he may just feel swallowed up by the unhappiness in his or her life and develop a neurosis of one kind or another. I have always offered that children who don’t mind in a seriously rebellious way are responding to inner-pain that they have no way to express except through defiance. Indeed, the child who screams out—for no apparent reason—I hate you is actually saying I “hate” my abandonment.

For example, a grandparent enters to baby sit the child and the child becomes immediately hateful. He or she is not responding to the grandparent but to the parents leaving; he simply feels betrayed and has transferred his or her anger from mom to grandmother and taking his stress out on her.  Remember feelings of abandonment are stressful on all of us at any age.

There are so many ways that a child can feel betrayed or actually is betrayed by the significant others in his or her life creating unnecessary stress for that child:  Being ignored or not truly listened to can turn frustration into stress if that becomes lifestyle. A child’s secure feelings count a lot on the attentiveness of his parents and others in his or her immediate family like grandparents, aunts and uncles but…parents (or other guardians) especially. A child simply needs someone there to put on the bandaids, kiss away the pain and take away the fears.

When we talk about childhood stress we are talking about how the child’s body/brain matures; the brain who endures a lot of stress will actually construct differently in a way a happy, secure child brain will construct in terms of projecting his or her worldview. And this brings to mind and old grievance of mine. Freud tells us that “hatred necessarily precedes love in human experience.”  What this means is, most basically, that the infant is born in a hate mode as opposed to a love or passive mode. I believe this to be one of Freud’s major misconceptions since the infant does not know where the baby blanket ends and he or she begins. The newborn is in a state of pure or total experience until the aspects of pain and pleasure are developed in an “I and it” realization. This is why conscientious care and attentiveness is so vital starting in infancy as the unconscious mind has already been forming in the womb. And so, the child’s joys and sorrows, pains and pleasures, stresses and satisfactions will remain in that child’s psyche for the rest of his or her entire life.

Certainly if you have a “problem child” who is otherwise in at least average good health do not attack the child but instead the problem. More often than not you will discover what the problem is by looking into the mirror. Just remember, a kiss can make the pain go away, a hug can make the fear go away and the words, I love you can simply make the world a better, happier place to be and…a whole lot less stressful.


Marlando, J * The Politics of Childhood *Merrygolds Publishing

Note: This book is out of print but can be purchased on Amazon

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