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Young and Stressed

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Often unnoticed and untreated, stress is a huge factor in the health of Canadian children.

Often unnoticed and untreated, stress is a huge factor in the health of Canadian children. David P. was two weeks away from his 12th birthday when he broke out in a bad case of acne that wouldn't go away. It didn't help that the shy scholar had just moved to a new school in Surrey, BC. It was hard making friends and soon the insults started. "Pizza face," "zit boy" and other names diminished his self-worth to the point where his grades began to drop from As to Bs to Cs. "I felt so bad," he recalls. "My face was all red and ugly."

His mother, Isabelle, didn't know what to do. She herself was dealing with the divorce that had necessitated their move to a different community. But finally, on a friend's advice, Isabelle took her son to a naturopathic/homeopathic practitioner, who suggested David's underlying problem was, in effect, stress. She prescribed homeopathic remedies to work on both the physical and emotional levels.

"At first, I took them because my mother told me to," David admits. "But then, my skin started to look better." He tried to cut back on junk food and took a daily "green food" drink. A school liaison also recommended David and Isabelle see a counsellor to deal with any lingering issues concerning the recent move and change in family status. It took several months, but David's skin problems cleared up and he began settling into his new routine. "I'm not sure what did it," he says. "But I feel a lot better about everything."

Researchers estimate that stress contributes to up to 80 percent of all major illnesses, including cancer, heart disease, hormone and metabolic dysfunction, skin disorders, numerous types of infection, as well as mental and emotional problems. An estimated 70 to 80 percent of physician visits are for stress-related issues.

National Numbers

David is an unfortunate representative of a largely overlooked and over-stressed young population. We most often hear about stress in relation to adults, although stress affects all ages and is, in fact, a huge factor in the health of Canadian children. A 1996 survey by D.R. Offord and E.L. Lipman reveals that in children aged four to 11, 9.6 percent have a conduct disorder; 10.3 percent experience hyperactivity; 8.8 percent have an emotional disorder; and 20.7 percent have one or more disorders.

Suicide rates amongst Canadian teens are also rising. In 15- to 19-year-olds, the rate of seven per 100,000 in 1970 had almost doubled (13 per 100,000) by 1992. For every suicide, there have been an estimated 10 to 100 attempted suicides. "Healthy Development of Children and Youth," a 1999 Health Canada report, traces these problems and more back to how kids deal with stress.

The document also points out that Canadian youth are, in fact, more prone to stress from work than adults. What's more, kids and teens must deal with physiological changes that interact with other stressful factors. Further, not all youths are cognizant of what they're experiencing. Depending on how young and accessible a child is, it may be up to a parent or other adult to identify that something is wrong.

An Early Start

Young children inevitably deal with a lot of stress. It's part of growing up. However, if there's an abnormal stress a new sibling, school, inappropriate television images, an unexpected tragedy, or even stress picked up from parents (capable of affecting even infants) it can be hard to quantify, says Stacelynn Caughlan, clinical nutritionist, certified herbalist and parent educator in Vancouver.

"With adults, you can almost pinpoint the reason [for] immediately," she says. However, until children can vocalize and sometimes even after that, you have to watch for signs, which include unexplained changes in behaviour, eating or sleeping patterns. Habits such as nail-biting and bed-wetting, as well as skin problems such as rashes or eczema, are often stress-related.

In her practice, Caughlan always looks at a child's entire life to determine possible stressors. A balanced diet and a daily multivitamin/mineral without additives (ask at your health food store) will go a long way to smoothing out common nutritional deficiencies that may perpetuate physical symptoms or contribute to other health challenges (see box). For example, a stressed child's eating habits may already be poor or interrupted, which affects blood sugar levels and, in turn, depresses the immune system. In general, Caughlan says, many children are also missing the essential fatty acids (EFAs), which are essential for hormone regulation and proper neurological development. She recommends parents ensure children get enough by adding more foods such as nuts, seeds and avocados to the diet. Another option is supplementing with EFA-rich oils such as flax, fish, evening primrose or hemp.

When a child needs additional external support for stress, interactive techniques that sometimes involve other family members can also be utilized. In the case of one of Caughlan's clients, a three-year-old girl who'd witnessed a boy get run over by a truck, art therapy using pictures to express what the child couldn't worked best to help her resolve her trauma.

Young and Not so Carefree

Coping skills largely start in the first few years of life and continue to develop. Preteen and teenage years can bring a new batch of common stressors puberty, peer pressure, and increasingly adult responsibilities. In her adolescent patients, school is a very big issue, explains Dr. Glenda Laxton from the Westcoast Naturopathic Clinic in Vancouver. (Surveys show Canadian teens consider school the biggest stressor.) Not only do teens face mounting schoolwork, raging hormones and more social interaction, but "the school system doesn't always address individual needs," she says.

Dr. Laxton's ideal strategy for dealing with stress focuses on finding the root problem. At the same time, because stress continuously affects the body, her recommendations include a good multivitamin/mineral that contains plenty of B vitamins. One item she likes recommending for children of all ages is Rescue Remedy, one of 38 Bach Flower remedies, which were developed by British physician Edward Bach during his research on how plant essences can profoundly affect underlying emotional and mental states that may impact health.

Both Caughlan and Dr. Laxton agree that properly chosen homeopathic preparations also work very well to assist in both physical and emotional realms. The key is in finding the right remedy, which is best done in conjunction with a qualified practitioner. Once that is accomplished, the younger the patient, says Dr. Laxton, the quicker the general response to treatment. In addition, professional counseling can sometimes be necessary depending on the situation.

Parental Role

Overall, one common stressor for kids is not having boundaries, says Vancouver psychotherapist Diane Forest, who works primarily with younger clients. What she's referring to is when, for whatever reason, a child is allowed to push the envelope behaviour-wise and receive an inconsistent response (and message) about what's appropriate. "For kids, that's really scary," she says.

Forest finds that if an issue does arise perhaps manifesting as behaviour outbursts, problems at school or social phobias (fears) play therapy and sand-tray therapy can be effective. These therapies are similar to art therapy in that they give the affected person (of any age) a voice.

Regardless of whether a child is two or 12, parental figures and social setting play a major role in a child's ability to respond to and recover from stress. Sadly, the same Health Canada report mentioned above points out that only one in six Canadian children with mental health problems actually receives much-needed support.

"School doesn't cater to kids with different learning styles," says Forest. And because teachers and staff are faced with cutback struggles, swelling class sizes and stresses of their own, when a child needs help, "sometimes it takes a while for them to figure it out." For parents and caregivers, the message is clear: being able to identify and deal with early warning signs of stress has become all the more important to help ward off acute and long-term problems.

High Cost of Stress

Stress refers to any reaction to physical, mental or emotional stimuli that throws body balance out of whack. Everyone has stress to some degree in daily life whether from work, relationships, a trauma, or other situation. Our bodies were built to handle a certain amount of stress for survival. Too much, however, causes problems.

When we're stressed, our adrenal glands secrete the stress hormone cortisol. At the same time, down drop our levels of dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), which is our anti-aging and immune-enhancing hormone. Research has shown that those people with low DHEA levels have compromised immune systems, resulting in increased susceptibility to disease. Chronic stress also interferes with hormone production, burns out the adrenals, contributes to nutrient deficiencies, causes fatigue, slows digestion and more.

Researchers estimate that stress contributes to up to 80 percent of all major illnesses, including cancer, heart disease, hormone and metabolic dysfunction, skin disorders, numerous types of infection, as well as mental and emotional problems. An estimated 70 to 80 percent of physician visits are for stress-related issues.

PDF Table of Top Anti-Stress Foods

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