Stress. We all have it. What would life be without it? Extremely boring. Stress is part of growing up, it helps you learn and adapt and grow. But there is good stress and bad stress. We all know that at an instinctual level, but how often do you actually think about the difference between good and bad stress and how it affects kids? What is the difference?
To begin with, there are three levels of stress that you should be aware of. For kids, there is good stress, like the first day of school or the first time you have to do show-and-tell and get up in front of the whole class. You get the adrenaline rush, it gets you prepped for the moment, and then you do the task at hand and your stress hormones return to normal.
Then there is the fight or flight (or freeze) stress. This is the car accident, or the hurricane, or moving to a whole new state. The adrenaline kicks in, you overcome your fear with the help and comfort of your parents and you return to normal, but you always remember. At some level, your body remembers, too.
Then there is toxic stress. This is the stress that doesn’t go away. This is stress that stems from neglect, abuse or other extreme adversity.. I don’t need to go into details here. But it’s the kind of stuff that can affect kids mentally and physically for their whole lives. It is also known as Adverse Childhood Experiences (or ACEs). Fortunately, when there is a caring adult involved, the effects of toxic stress can be countered and even reversed. Today we are going to talk about one of those ways, nutrition.
Proper nutrition is just one of the tools to reverse the effects of toxic stress. When exposed to toxic stress, kids can get in the habit of eating chips, soda, candy or whatever is available without regard to its nutritional value (if they even pay attention to that). These poor food choices can lead to other health problems like obesity and dental issues that further compound the effects of toxic stress. So, if you are caring for a child who has been exposed to toxic stress, how can you help to reverse it with nutrition?
You can start by eating dinner together as a family. The simple act of eating together can help build a routine that kids can learn to trust in and feel safe, especially if they have been forced to fend for themselves in the past and didn’t know if or when their next meal was coming. And eating together doesn’t mean everyone sitting in front of the TV or staring at his or her phone. Eat at the table. Put the phones away. Turn the TV off. It doesn’t have to be a three-hour affair, but 30 minutes to an hour every night just eating and talking can make a huge difference.
Get kids involved in meal planning and preparation. I’m not suggesting you let them pick dinner every night: No one wants to have a three-meal rotation of hot dogs, chicken nuggets and pizza. But let them have some input. Find out what they really love and find a way to incorporate that. Do they love mashed potatoes? Find a meal where you can use that as a side dish and let them help make it (and let’s face it, homemade mashed potatoes don’t take all that much more effort than potatoes from a box). Kids love to feel involved, and they will be a lot more likely to eat a healthy meal if they helped choose it and make it.
And a simple third way to help with nutrition? It’s as simple as eating breakfast. Yeah, they may want to pick some super sugary cereal. Start off with that but mix in something healthier, like Cheerios. I know it’s sneaky. But if you pour their cereal and mix in some Cheerios with the Fruit Loops, would they notice? And is that any worse than mixing in some spinach or Kale in with a strawberry smoothie? Then change up the mix over time until there’s hardly any sugar. And cut up some strawberries or bananas on top as you do it. Next thing you know they be eating Cheerios or Shredded Wheat every day (okay, Shredded Wheat may be pushing it).
Toxic stress can have a lasting negative impact on kids. If you are in the position to care for a child affected by it, proper nutrition is just one weapon in your arsenal to combat it. Keep an eye out for more tools and techniques to come to overcome it and help raise a happy, healthy child.
For more information about toxic stress or Adverse Childhood Experiences, please visit https://www.stresshealth.org, an initiative of the Center for Youth Wellness.
Disclaimer: The author was compensated for her time, but all opinions are my own.