When I think about stress I think about an evening in Mongolia when I was sixteen. A summer team was visiting and it was my responsibility to flag down three separate taxis, inform the drivers where to go and take these men to dinner. I successfully sent off the first two taxis before flagging down the last one. I climbed in and found myself sandwiched between two young men, my age, and their father in the front seat. The taxi was blaring the song,
“Let’s talk about sex, baby, let’s talk about you and me, let’s talk about all the good things and the bad things that may be, let’s talk about sex.”
I can still physically feel the tension and embarrassment as the song played itself through. We all kept our mouths shut in awkward silence with our heads bowed just a bit, waiting for the moment to end.
I now sing that song when I’m stressed and remember the ridiculousness of that moment. “Let’s talk about stress baby, let’s talk about you and me, let’s talk about all the good things and the bad things that may be, let’s talk about stress.”
Living cross-culturally in our various lines of work is stressful to say the least. Our world is a mobile one, unstable, dependent on visas and personal support. We live in areas of war and poverty. We put ourselves into relationships that are volatile and circumstances that are dangerous. We may or may not have enough food, we may or may not live where disease runs rampant and medical care is scarce. We fly back and forth and back and forth between countries, cultures and worlds, year after year.
When we moved our family to Indonesia, it was hard on all of us, but the stress uniquely impacted our kids. After the first few months, especially after our home had been ransacked, a few of my kids would not leave my sight and one, in particular, would have consistent meltdowns and began to have sensory sensitivities. Noises that wouldn’t have been a problem a year before now became intense issues.
All I wanted to do was make it stop. My own stress was high and my own energy low, and it was a struggle not to stick him in his room alone and remind him that he wasn’t 3 years old. However, his response to stress was my springboard into trauma research. I didn’t know what to do and I began to read, and the more I read, the more I understood how anxiety, trauma and fight or flight interact with a child’s development and physiology. I began to see a correlation between the behavior of my kids and the external situations as well as the correlation between my own behavior and trauma from a childhood overseas.
What I found in my research is that chronic stress can increase the risk of physical health problems, behavioral problems and mood disorders in children. Stress becomes toxic when a child experiences strong, frequent, and/or prolonged adversity (stress) that disrupts the development of brain architecture and other organ systems, and increases the risk for stress related disease and cognitive impairment over a lifetime.
Now, this isn’t to say that we shouldn’t take our kids overseas and that they shouldn’t be exposed to difficult and painful realities or that all adversity will cause damage. I just know, from my experience, that understanding and acknowledging the impact that stress has on my kids’ lives as well as on my own life gives us all a chance to minimize the negative impacts and facilitate positive growth in the face of stress.
One of the important lessons in a child’s life is the regulation of emotions and learning to cope in stressful and adverse situations. Under stress the heart rate, blood pressure and cortisol levels rise to prepare for combat which can damage a child’s bodily systems and brain architecture when the stress response doesn’t return to baseline. This is where stress shifts from being a positive to a negative, as a child’s body remains heightened over long periods of time.
As parents, it’s our privilege to play the primary role in soothing our kids’ bodies under stress. Our presence, our physical touch and the culture of our own homes allows our kids to be soothed even while they are experiencing stressors and even traumas. It is through our presence that we help our kids’ bodies return to a safe physiological baseline.
When my son was in the throes of sensory overload, it became my mission to make him feel safe. I could have punished him for lashing out at siblings or for yelling and kicking, but once I understood what his body was going through, I could appropriately help him self-soothe. I relied on deep breathing, talking through the trigger, and hugs. We even did yoga every morning for an entire school year to help lower our cortisol levels and while it didn’t cure anything, the observance of self-care and emotional awareness carries on to this day.
Not every child will behave the same under chronic stress. Just within my own household there are those who lash out, those who withdraw, those who deny and those who experience headaches, nightmares, insomnia or self-harming behaviors. All of these indicate distress and I count it a privilege to be the one who can help facilitate healing for my kids. It may mean I step back from work or give up on a dream. It could be staying behind instead of going or going instead of staying.
In Ecclesiastes, Solomon makes the observation that, “with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief (1:18).” This statement has been true for me as a mom. As I have struggled to understand myself and have looked honestly at my choices, behavior and inadequacies, I recognize that I have contributed to the pain my kids experience. The more I know, the more I grieve and yet there is always hope in the knowing. It is in the knowing that reconciliation and healing are found. It is in truth that we are set free and as parents we can bear the burden of sorrow and we can make the sacrifices required to face the truth. In this way our children can see God in the midst of their heartache and, in so doing, our children will be able to bear up under the burdens of the future.
Are your kids stressed out? How do you know? How can you help carry their burden for them? How has God met you in the thick of helping your kids deal with stress?
 The Deepest Well: Healing the Long Term Effects of Childhood Adversity