Stress and Your Child: The Adrenaline Connection

Parents want the best for their children. Sometimes, however, they unwittingly do things that harm them. This is why every parent needs to understand the connection between stress and adrenaline. What exactly is adrenaline? It’s a hormone produced by two small glands situated just above the kidneys. The release of adrenaline gives us a buzz whenever we become excited. It is quite common to hear someone talk about an “adrenaline rush” – a short burst of adrenaline that makes us feel on top of the world. It also becomes activated in an emergency.

Children Experience Adrenaline Rushes

Adrenaline excitement, however, is not confined to adults. Children experience it too. And if prolonged adrenaline arousal can harm adults (and it does), imagine what I can do to children. In fact there is a very real risk that many parents are turning their kids into “adrenaline junkies” by overstimulating them with video games or competitive behaviors that elicit high levels of circulating adrenaline. Adrenaline provides pleasure and energy, which makes us feel competent, energetic, and challenged. But when the excitement is over, a decrease in circulating adrenaline produces a “let-down” – a unique form of depression called “post adrenaline depression.” This letdown causes a fairly classic set of withdrawal symptoms:

* Depression, masked by irritability, including angry outbursts

* Restlessness and insomnia

* A strong compulsion to “keep doing something”

* Poor concentration and memory problems

Understand the Stress Hormones

Every parent should know how stress hormones are triggers and how they can be controlled. While adrenaline’s target is mainly our cardiovascular system, a close cousin called “cortisol” is responsible for causing severe anxiety, such as panic attacks and depression. It is very possible that many cases of childhood “Attention Deficit Disorder” (ADD) may be misdiagnosed and related to prolonged cortisol arousal.

Too Much of a Good Thing

Human beings were never designed to live in a constant state of high arousal. ‘Mountaintops’ of stimulation need to be followed by ‘valleys’ of rest in order to allow the adrenal system to recover. Children who become accustomed to high levels of adrenaline can develop ‘anhedonia’ (the loss of an ability to feel pleasure and a common depression symptom).

The Causes of High Adrenaline in Children

Three of the causes of elevated levels of adrenaline in children are:

Pressures and competition - Children often feel pressure to perform, succeed, and please their parents. Additionally, kids are pitted against one another in school and sports. As they grow older they face competition for scholarships and college acceptance. Before long they encounter it as they look for jobs. Unless they learn to achieve balance in their lives, this pressure will take its toll.

Our dangerous world - Unfortunately, our world is dangerous. Recent terrorist events dominate our news. Recent abductions of children who have been sexually abused have particularly raised kids fear level.

Noise and overcrowding - Aggravating or loud noises are perceived by the body to be a threat and therefore stimulates the release of adrenaline. And overcrowding not only increases noise levels, but also causes more conflicts, higher competitiveness, increased irritability, and a higher incidence of physical distress.

Protecting Your Children

Parents can begin to break the adrenaline connection by modeling a ‘balanced life’. If you are an adrenaline junkie, don’t expect your child to be otherwise. Next, build ‘down time’ into your child’s schedule where they can relax and avoid stimulating activities, and limit your child’s exposure to TV newscasts, which focus on violence and abuses. Most importantly help your child develop a regular devotional time, a period each day when they quietly read Scripture and pray. They are never too young to learn this discipline, which will remain a lifelong habit.  - Archibald D. Hart, Ph.D.


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