COVID 19 series: The Role Stress Plays in Children During the pandemic

In the coming weeks, we will be profiling COVID-19 work and expertise from Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health members. This profile is on DMCBH researcher Dr. Adele Diamond, Professor of Development Cognitive Neuroscience at UBC.

Over the past several months, most people have been experiencing higher than normal levels of stress. The pandemic has resulted in job losses, limited social contact and uncertainty, all of which have contributed to heightened stress levels. And while adults certainly have a lot on their minds, it’s equally important to pay attention to the role stress is playing in children.

“The stress brought on by COVID-19 can have long lasting effects on children’s psychological and physical state,” says Dr. Adele Diamond, DMCBH researcher and Professor of Development Cognitive Neuroscience at UBC. “Children might come out on the other side of this pandemic feeling more anxious in general and being more easily stressed by other things in life.”

Dr. Diamond studies early childhood development and focuses much of her research on the prefrontal cortex—the area of the brain that takes the longest to mature over a person’s lifetime. This structure is largely responsible for performing executive functions, which are functions that are needed when we can’t rely on instinct or intuition. This includes self-control, working memory and cognitive flexibility (all of which are needed for problem solving). Stress is a key factor that affects the prefrontal cortex and, as a result, can impair a person’s executive functioning abilities. This means prolonged stress—which many children are facing right now with anxious adults all around them and no guarantee of what school will look like in the fall—can have long-term effects on children’s ability to think clearly or control impulsive reacting (i.e., use their executive functions).

“If you look at the literature on childhood origins of adult disease, stress is at the top of the list,” says Dr. Diamond. You see increased risk for mental health problems as well as many major health issues in adults such as cardiovascular disease and arthritis. But even before they reach adulthood, children experiencing stress are also more at risk for a number of health problems such as obesity, asthma and depression.”

Finding ways to reduce stress isn’t easy, but it’s an important part of maintaining brain health for both children and adults, especially during a pandemic. Dr. Diamond says now more than ever, supportive parenting is essential to reduce stress children are facing. Exercising, mindfulness practices like meditating and yoga, and maintaining human connections as much as possible is not only good for children but are also ways parents can reduce their own stress levels, which in turn will help them be good parents during this challenging time.

“It can’t be emphasized enough just how important parental nurturing is right now,” explains Dr. Diamond. “If parents can try to maintain a high level of patience with their children, listen to them and spend time with them, the better off their child will be throughout life.”