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Stress and anxiety are a part of every life – sorry, but there it is. While we may want to alleviate excessive stress and find ways of managing it, you will never eradicate it completely. And with the roller coaster of events of the last few years, this is having an impact on us all. Affecting the decisions we make and the ways in which we behave. And this is as true for your children as it is for you. Unable to understand, or to have any real control over the events going on around them, this is affecting children in ways we may not have experienced previously. Even before they are born.

It used to be thought that during pregnancy an unborn child was somewhat of a passive bystander, protected from negative influences of the physical and emotional environment by the placenta. However, recent studies show this is not in fact the case. The mother’s emotions and stress levels are influencing the development of their unborn child in ways that can have long lasting effects. Preparing them for a very different world to the one they are about to experience.

This does not mean that every child born from a stressful pregnancy will automatically have problems. Within a nurturing environment a child has enormous potential to change. But to do so, they need your understanding; of their development, of what their behaviours may be telling you and the support you can offer.

When we experience stress, cortisol, the stress hormone, is released into the blood stream as the body readies its reaction to the perceived threat. Provided this is a rare occurrence, this is a process children need to experience, with few ill effects. However, when repeatedly exposed to feeling stressed, a child’s cortisol responses adapt. Equipping them to manage in a stressful and potentially hostile world, it affects the way they manage stress and anxiety.

If born into a hostile world, where a heightened fear and readiness to react with alert aggression is needed, these adaptations could be lifesaving. However, if instead, they have been born into a more typical life, where they are required to concentrate and pay attention with more stable emotions, they are going to struggle.

These children are often found to react with heightened emotions. They may be quick to cry, to appear helpless or to react with anger. This level of focus and excess energy is exhausting. It can limit a child’s ability to concentrate and maintain attention and may affect their behaviours in ways similar to, and often confused with, the signs of Conduct Disorder (CD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

Every child needs a safe environment in which to grow; physically, emotionally and socially as they gain a sense of who they are. They need opportunities to explore their own choices and to learn from their decisions – and mistakes – within an environment of calm understanding.

As children grow and mature, they may behave differently than expected, or how other children are behaving. Their interests may differ from what was planned, or they may take longer to master something that others find easy. But these differences need accepting and respecting.

Children respond best when they have opportunities to experience their natural reactions and learn to manage their emotions. They will look to you for guidance, but an overbearing ‘helicopter’ style of support will take away a child’s ability to cope with change or adversity when you are not there to take control.

So, what can you do to guide them?

The first thing to remember within any stressful situation, or when demands become overwhelming, is that children are children. They have immature social skills, unmanaged physical responses, a developing unfinished brain and confusion about their needs and wants. Their brain continually floods their body with chemicals causing them to act in ways that we may often read as quite irrational and chaotic. And all of this must be experienced and understood.

Working with young children can also seem to come with enormous demands, adding to your own stress. With information coming at you from every angle, with enormous potential for misinterpretation. Try to keep a balanced perspective as you re-examine and simplify the demands you place on your day. Prioritise your actions and concentrate only on what is important.

As you look to support your children, take the time to get to know them. Watch their behaviours and tendencies, the ways they like to do things, to interact and engage with their world. As you begin to really see them, and their developments day by day, you can observe their actions and hear their words on a different level, free of the expectations of what they “should” be doing or saying.

Children live in the moment so do not expect their actions or decisions to be based on any consideration of the future. Mistakes and accidents are normal, and far more frequent when a child feels pressured, rushed or managing unexpected change.

As well as this, every child is their own person, full of emotions, motivations and liable to getting things wrong. They are not programmable machines, even when you did “Exactly what the book said!” And I am sorry to tell you – they will look to test your boundaries too. But avoid inadvertently pressuring them as they explore, grow and develop. Instead, reassure them with quiet voices and gentle tones that they are valued and safe.

Children take all of childhood to grow. Brains are developing, bodies are growing, and the world can be a stressful place that children are only beginning to navigate their way around. So, guide them through this tremendous period of rapid growth and development. Nurture their well-being – as well as your own. And most importantly, enjoy them in the here and now, rather than stressing about the future, or events that are out of your control.

Embed your supportive practice with the new Nurturing Childhoods Accreditation, underpinned by the DfE professional standards. Offering you CPD tailored to the needs of your setting, and the children and families you work with. Complete with materials, guidance and resources available for your parents. Join me as we surround children with a unified understanding of who they are and what they need, and really begin developing the potential of all children in their early years.

About the author:

Dr. Kathryn Peckham, the visionary behind Nurturing Childhoods, is a dedicated champion for ensuring that children have access to enriching and purposeful experiences during their crucial formative years. With a fervent commitment to this cause, Kathryn collaborates with various educational settings to assess the profound effects of impactful childhood experiences, which lay the essential groundwork for lifelong learning.

About the author:

Dr. Kathryn Peckham, the visionary behind Nurturing Childhoods, is a dedicated champion for ensuring that children have access to enriching and purposeful experiences during their crucial formative years. With a fervent commitment to this cause, Kathryn collaborates with various educational settings to assess the profound effects of impactful childhood experiences, which lay the essential groundwork for lifelong learning.

About the author:

Dr. Kathryn Peckham, the visionary behind Nurturing Childhoods, is a dedicated champion for ensuring that children have access to enriching and purposeful experiences during their crucial formative years. With a fervent commitment to this cause, Kathryn collaborates with various educational settings to assess the profound effects of impactful childhood experiences, which lay the essential groundwork for lifelong learning.

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