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Behavioural problems in children due to stress: Expert

A total of 700 Abbotsford parents pre-registered for a talk on self-regulation last week. - ALINA KONEVSKI/ABBOTSFORD NEWS
A total of 700 Abbotsford parents pre-registered for a talk on self-regulation last week.
— image credit: ALINA KONEVSKI/ABBOTSFORD NEWS

Children who are excessively moody, or aggressive, or lethargic, aren't bad kids, says Dr. Stuart Shanker. They are stressed and sleep-deprived.

The psychology and philosophy professor from Toronto's York University spoke to a full house at the Abbotsford Arts Centre last Thursday night in a talk organized by the Abbotsford school district.

Seven hundred Abbotsford parents had pre-registered for the free event.

"These problems in behaviour, problems in mood, problems in aggressiveness, problems paying attention – These problems are all signs of excessive stress," said Shanker. "It has nothing to do with that child being weak. It has nothing to do with that child's attitude. It has nothing to do with that child choosing the wrong things, because these are children."

Shaker, who established a child therapy treatment and research centre at York, says that many physiological problems have been growing in recent years.

Dr. Stuart Shanker"We're on a trajectory that's got us very worried," he said. "Our children have the highest levels of stress of any generation."

He referenced a largescale 2012 study by the Toronto District School Board that found that 73 per cent of students had serious anxiety.

Shanker told Abbotsford parents that the solution is teaching children to self-regulate, which is how the brain deals with stress, and then recovers. The strategy consists of identifying and limiting the stressors, and increasing activities such as exercise and reading.

For many Abbotsford parents, the talk confirmed what they sensed already: sleep and exercise are important, and stressors like TV need to be limited.

"When my kids start getting in a mood or getting grumpy, I'll just send them outside and they can go and play. I didn't realize how important it was being active outside," said Jen Holding.

Another mom was pleasantly surprised about the direction of the talk.

"I actually thought it was about overstimulating with too many activities in their day, so it was quite eye-opening what this was actually about…I found that very interesting, because I think my kids watch too much TV," said Robin Staniforth.

Overcoming stress in children

When people are in high-stress mode, Shanker says, they can become deaf to high-frequency sounds. A mom who is calling her screaming seven year-old's name over and over again is not necessarily being ignored.

As Abbotsford school district superintendent Kevin Godden summarized, "When a child's brain is overloaded, they can't hear you."

Children are not purposely ignoring the wishes of parents, or being aggressive and hyperactive. Rather, they are reacting to stress, according to Shanker.

"You didn't need to yell. You didn't need to punish. You needed to figure out where the stress was," Shanker told Abbotsford parents.

Shanker laid out three steps to overcoming a tense situation.

Number one is identifying the stressor. The biggest stressor for kids today is lack of sleep, he says. Children are sleeping one to two hours less than they were 10 years ago. One reason for that is that kids are plugged in to their electronic devices at all hours of the night, checking text messages and Facebook posts, for example. Exposure to a screen one hour before sleep puts children – and adults – in a state of heightened stress.

Step two is developing the child's awareness of what stresses her or him out. For example, Shanker has studied video games extensively to find that the stresses in games are so extreme that the brain stays in high-stress mode long after the game and is unable to recover. The body's fight or flight system does not know it's a game and reacts as if the child's life is constantly in danger. It doesn't mean the child can't play the game, Shanker emphasized, but rather that the danger to a child's well-being comes after hours of continuous playing.

The third and final step is bringing the child back to a calm state through regulators. The number one regulator is exercise, which paradoxically puts more energy into the body than it takes out, says Shanker. Others include performing music (especially singing), reading, martial arts, yoga, and art. Every child has particular regulators that work best for him or her.

"It is by being regulated – by you – that the child learns to self-regulate," Shanker concluded.

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