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Child Stress

In their early development, children will have several reasons for being distressed; they will cry when hungry, cold, tired, in pain or when support to which they have become accustomed is withdrawn. On the other side of the coin they will display pleasure, laughter and smiles when they are content. This can be brought about by being securely wrapped and cuddled, seeing potentially interesting sights, and hearing soothing noises such as a regular heart beat. Thumb sucking is used by babies as a way of relieving tension, especially when going to sleep, when anxiety seems to be at its greatest. Smiling is well documented, and is a response to such things as a full stomach, a pleasant noise or a social response to a face. By 4 or 5 months, a baby will smile quite broadly and laugh, as opposed to grinning, at exciting stimuli.

During the age of around 6 to 12 months, crying in babies usually lessens as the stressful effects due to the developing digestive system reduces, since digestion becomes more stable, and curiosity of the world around acts as a distracter to minor problems of the self. The baby will undoubtedly respond to the stresses in the home, and may become the subject of rough handling where parental tensions, for whatever reason, are high. Too much stimulation and constant bouncing around, even with the best of intentions, can cause the baby stress and will result in crying intending to send signals that the infant wants to be left alone. Opposite to this is the case, where the baby begins to smile and laugh in anticipation of a pleasurable experience rather than during something that is eliciting pleasure .

From around 12 months of age, the baby is likely to show signs of stress when it is forced to do things it does not want to, such as going to bed when not tired, or having something taken away from it. Typical signs of this frustration will be loud cries that sound more than anger rather than pain or sadness. Smiling and laughter are likely to continue as before, but may be inhibited by something the child perceives as fearful. Fears and hence anxiety and hence stress have been observed to increase from age 6 months to about 18 months. Two researchers subjected babies to potentially fear inducing stimuli : a visual cliff, a strange adult, a jack-in-a-box, a small moving dog, a mask, and a loud noise. They found that babies up to 7 months rarely showed fear, those above 7 months became wary of the stimuli and those age 11 to 18 months were most likely to be frightened by all six stimuli. From 18 months, it was noticed that the fear declined. Clearly there are important implications for early child-rearing practices in order to minimalise stress during these early years. What appears to be necessary, is a secure, loving home environment, where stimulation that does not induce fear is used.

The developing child in its early childhood may have feelings of fear, or anxiety by virtue of the fact that it is now able to recognise that it is physically small in relation to the adult world in which its carers exist. In some homes this may be compounded by adults who continually make the child aware of its size and limitations by 'standing tall' when speaking to the child, or by hectoring when the child makes mistakes. When toys become broken, this too can cause stress in the child, and this is especially the case where they cannot be repaired, as it emphasises to the child its own imperfectness in a world where adults and older siblings do not seem to have these problems. The child may have fears, in the home where disapproval, and possibly punishment are the order of the day when things get broken. It has been established that fears of such occurrences go beyond the fears of earlier years mentioned earlier, and reach a peak at around 3 years of age. This again reinforces the view that young children need stability and a home where love, cuddles and reassurance are much in evidence.