Stress and Your Kids – Part 4 (of 5)

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sleeping kid

Now that you’ve begun to identify the effects of stress on your kids’ emotional and physical health, it’s time to learn how you can take steps to stress-proof your kids.  If you haven’t had a chance to read the previous posts for this series on stress and your kids, I would encourage you to read Parts 1, 2 and 3 first before proceeding with this blog.  Learn to identify the problems first before settling on the solutions so that you can be on guard for future difficulties that may crop up.

When parents first come to my office to share their concerns about their kids, I always do an initial assessment on two important, under-rated, and neglected areas.  These issues are so important that if I could help parents make healthy changes in only these two areas, half of the battle with behavioural and emotional problems would be won.  While there are many other strategies that can help combat stress in our kids’ lives (some of which I will review in Part 5 of this series), I want to focus on these two areas for this blog.  That’s how important they are.  So what are they?

The first critical stress-busting strategy is SLEEP.  One of the most under-rated links to health and behavioural problems is sleep.  We sleep one-third of our lives, but statistics show that 74% of adults have insufficient sleep with very serious health and life consequences.  A 2004 poll shows that children are sleeping less than experts recommend while more than two-thirds experience frequent sleep problems.    According to a 2010 study that appeared in the journal SLEEP, teens with a bedtime of midnight or later were 24 percent more likely to suffer from depression and 20 percent more likely to have suicidal thoughts than adolescents with parental set bedtimes of 10 PM or earlier.

Setting earlier bedtimes likely results in longer sleep duration, which is very beneficial for brain function and mental health.  Experts say that kids need 10 to 11 hours of sleep a night, while teens need nine hours of sleep at night.  Don’t let them try to convince you that they can get by on less.  According to the National Sleep Foundation, only 8 percent of teens are getting enough sleep.  In fact, more than two thirds of teens get less than seven hours of sleep nightly.  Adults need between 7 to 9 hours a night.  How many of you reading this blog are getting that many each night?

So what are the risks of sleep deprivation?   The risks are many:  diabetes (type 2), heart disease, depression, anxiety, marital distress (insomnia puts a lot of stress on marriage), and obesity (especially childhood) just to name a few.  When you don’t sleep enough, a very important hormone in the brain that signals you are full drops dramatically; it also decreases our learning ability, which impacts our cognitive functioning.  Even more sobering:  if you sleep 6 or less hours of sleep a night, you significantly shorten your life span – poor sleep has a greater mortality rate than smoking or heart disease.

Sleep is God’s antidote for stress and healing – if that’s the one thing you can do to deal with your stress, go and get better sleep.  If that’s the only thing you take from this series on stress, go and make sure that you put good sleep habits into place for your children.  Sleep for good physical health but also for good emotional health.  Research has shown increased activity in the amygdala with sleep deprived volunteers – this is the part of the brain that is linked to emotions and so emotional dysregulation is another common side effect of sleep deprivation.

Beyond just getting to sleep, the quality of our sleep is also critical.  The dream cycle (or REM sleep) comes at the end of the sleep cycle.  All the sleep before that is before that is preparing you for dream sleep and it’s only when you complete that dream will the sleep cycle end.  Non-dream sleep is primarily for rejuvenation of the body (muscles, etc.), and when your body is satisfied with that, it moves to the dream sleep.  Dream sleep’s function is the rejuvenation of the brain, which is important to emotional states, important for our learning, and important for our emotional well-being.

So what are some of the sleep killers?

Adrenaline – As I indicated in Part 2 of this series, we have all these stimulating gadgets that keep our adrenaline going so that when we go to bed we are flooded with adrenaline and it interferes with our sleep.  Adrenaline also increases with too much excitement and too much stress, with having too many demands placed on our plate.

Caffeine – While one cup of coffee has less impact on total sleep, it has much greater impact on REM, which as I said earlier, is vital to the rejuvenation of the brain and our emotions.  Two cups of coffee drops REM even more, and by 3 cups, there is virtually no REM at all.  This is because of the half-life of caffeine, which remains in your body even after the energy boost it gives you has long disappeared.   And course, caffeine is not just in our coffee; it is also in the energy drinks, some pop, and chocolate that kids and teens regularly ingest.

Late Night Activities – too many exciting activities too late into the evening (including competitive sports) interferes with the brain’s ability to settle down.  In today’s world, many of our kids and teens are involved with too many activities late into the night, and then often have homework to deal with after they get home.  Strenuous cognitive activities also keep the brain wired and can prevent our students from getting the sleep they need.  In fact, if they have a test or exam the next day, getting a good night’s sleep will often help them more than staying up all night studying.

Kids who don’t get enough sleep find it difficult to cope with all the demands placed on them:  they worry excessively, frustration comes easily, they readily resort to aggression and yelling; they cry or panic easily, or they become angry at the drop of a hat.  It’s also a vicious cycle:  because they are irritable, parents and teachers get upset with them, and because they can’t concentrate and make mistakes easily, they have accidents or break things – all of which only increases their stress level.

If your child is one of those kids who just can’t settle down and sleep, consider whether he or she may be over-stimulated.  A child who is highly excited or stimulated by some challenge or activity won’t want to sleep and for a brief time, the adrenaline masks the need for sleep.  If your child doesn’t wake naturally, consider that he or she may need more sleep – try putting your child to bed earlier; if you have a night-owl on your hands who just lies there awake, remember that resting is also important and meets part of the child’s non-dream sleep needs. For some, staying awake is just a bad habit; if your child tends to be sluggish in the morning, increase sleep time gradually by half hour increments and see if natural awakening occurs.

Keep in mind that your child may actually wake up feeling more tired initially as you adjust his or her sleep cycle because it takes time for their body to re-adjust.  It takes about 3 or 4 days for a new rhythm to be established.  Teens are notorious for abusing sleep – they stay up late and then feel too tired to get up in the am – adding up to 2 hours of sleep per night to the average teen’s sleep can bring about a dramatic change in mood and mental acuity.

If your child is over-stimulated and can’t get to sleep (or wakes up and can’t get back to sleep), teach him or her to just relax and stay in bed – physical rejuvenation takes place whenever we lie still and relax so just resting is beneficial in itself.  In addition, lying quietly will give the adrenaline level a chance to drop so that the child will eventually fall asleep naturally

Here are five ways to improve your child’s sleep:

  1. Ensure that noise is minimized – use white noise if necessary to mask any disturbing or sudden noises.
  2. Establish a regular bedtime and create a pleasant ritual around bedtime – sleep is controlled by a biological clock and irregular hours confuse this clock.
  3. Try to lower arousal a few hours before bedtime (at least 1.5 to 2 hours of quiet, non-physical activity such as a bath, reading, colouring or quiet conversation).
  4. Avoid caffeine-based foods before bedtime (like coke, coffees, chocolates) as well as high-sugar foods (like pop, juice, or candy) within the last few hours before bed.
  5. Darken the environment 1.5 hours before bed – this triggers the melatonin in their brain which helps them to get sleepy.  If possible, keep the room as dark as possible with no nightlights or electronic clocks for the best quality sleep.

The second vital stress-busting strategy is NUTRITION There’s a growing body of research that suggests that many children’s nutrition is inadequate, especially given our reliance today on convenience and packaged foods – a lot of processed food with little nutritional value.  Studies are now showing the HUGE impact the fuel we take in has on the health of our bodies, including our ability to tolerate stress.  And conversely, the more stress we are under, the greater the increase of cortisol (the stress hormone) and the greater the likelihood of craving foods high in fat, sugar and salt.

Nutrition is now being linked to behavioural and emotional problems in our children.  The results of recent studies are conclusive:  good nutrition is critical to our children’s health, emotional well-being, ability to learn and cope with stress.   Unfortunately, in our hurried lifestyle, having a balanced diet that is suitable for our growing children has become more and more difficult.   The vast majority of kids nowadays are missing many essential nutrients and minerals necessary for healthy development.  And more distressing, even when we take the time to make healthy meals for our children, studies now say that our food source is so deprived of nutrients that our kids may not be getting sufficient vitamins and minerals to help their body function at their very best.  For example, kids would now have to eat 8 oranges to get the same amount of Vitamin A as our grandparents did with one orange!

So what can you do about it?  While there is controversy in this area, I firmly believe that our diets need help with additional vitamins and supplements beyond just a healthy diet.  Take the time to do some research; there are a myriad of great resources out there to keep you informed, from books to websites to seminars.  And if your child is a picky eater and won’t take vitamins and supplements, there are excellent protein shakes out on the market that provide a balance of nutrients, vitamins and minerals without all of the added sugars and chemicals that impede healthy development – a perfect way for a quick meal that you can be confident will meet the health needs of your growing child.

Clinically, I have also found that kids are coming to my office with more food allergies and sensitivities that seem to impact their health, behaviour and emotional stability.  When those sensitivities are identified and those foods avoided, parents will often see a marked decrease in the problematic behaviours.  As the specifics around nutrition is beyond the scope of this blog, I would encourage you to consult your local naturopathic doctor, nutritionist or doctor who practices functional medicine.

Next week, I conclude this series in Part 5 with other stress inoculating strategies, so stay tuned!


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