CBC's health reporter Kelly Crowe interviews Dr. Stan Kutcher

Adolescent psychiatrist

Dalhousie University, Halifax

Abridged

Crowe: Are children more stressed today?

Kutcher: We really don’t know if kids are more stressed now than they were in the past. We don’t have really good evidence to say one way or the other. They certainly may be under different kinds of stress than they were in the past. But even that we’re not completely sure about. It doesn’t stop us from having lots of opinion, this lack of data; in fact, more often we find the less data there is the stronger the opinions are. 

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Dr. Stan Kutcher of Dalhousie University, Halifax, says not all stress is bad. (Courtesy of Dalhousie University)

 

Crowe: Is stress bad for kids?

Kutcher: That’s one of the other myths out there, that all stress is bad. And that’s completely untrue. In fact much stress is really good and if we weren’t feeling stress we would be brain dead or actually dead dead. Stress is useful for us, it helps the body tune itself, it is a method by which we learn how to adapt to our environment either by changing ourselves or by changing our environment.  There is good stress, which is positive, it helps kids learn how to pick themselves up and dust themselves off, and start all over again. That’s part of resilience.  That’s part of learning how to deal with life, but sometimes there’s also stress that is bad for you and part of the deal is understanding which is which.

Crowe:  So, it can be harmful to kids?  

Kutcher:  We know that stress which is very prolonged or very intense can be harmful to people and the times in life when that stress comes on can also be more harmful than other times.  For example early in life; severe and prolonged stress early in life such as maltreatment or abuse can have impact not only at that point in life but also well into adulthood because of its impact on brain development. Severe and prolonged stress is not good for you.

Crowe:  So there is good stress?  

 Kutcher: Slings and arrows of outrageous fortune are there so we can overcome them. Shakespeare told us that and we have to be really really careful here because there is a certain amount of stress which is good for you. There is a certain amount of stress we need so we can learn how to adapt.  We’re not here as a species and still surviving those millennia because we couldn’t adapt to stress. On the contrary, our brains are wired to adapt.  I don’t think we actually do anybody a service and we may actually do young people a disservice by trying to protect them from stress and trying to make everything nice and everything rosy and having a Pollyannish approach to life.  I don’ t think that does anyone any good.

Crowe:  What can reduce stress in our children's live?  

Kutcher: Well meditation skills and mindfulness we know those help reduce stress and that’s fine. They’re good. What we don’t know is if they’re better than regular old exercise or we don’t know if they’re better than hanging out with your buddies and talking about this and talking about that or getting really involved in music. So all sorts of things I think people can use to deal with stress.

One of the issues here is it’s possible to over-focus on things which sometimes we just naturally know how to deal with. And yeah, I think we can help kids deal with stress better but do we really need to teach them how to deal with stress, in classrooms or in special programs, dealing with stress? Whatever happed to regular play? Whatever happened to learning how to deal with things by yourself? Because you know part of dealing with stress is just learning how to get over things and get on with your life. That’s really important.  

'Slings and arrows of outrageous fortune are there so we can overcome them. Shakespeare told us that and we have to be really really careful here because there is a certain amount of stress which is good for you.'— Dr. Stan Kutcher

Sometimes kids don’ t realize they’re under stress until they’re told they’re under stress and then they so "Oh gosh I’m under stress" and stress can become an excuse for doing all sorts of things not well, "Oh I didn’t do well on my exam because I was under stress, or I didn’t do well in the hockey game because I was under stress." Well there is a certain amount of stress that happens in life, it’s normal, we have to deal with it. We have to learn how to deal with it. That doesn’t mean that giving kids techniques or giving them hints or showing them how to deal with it is a bad thing, I think that’s probably a good thing but doing it over and over and providing cocoons for kids I don’t think that helps.

It’s sort of analogous to when you eat dirt your immune system gets stronger and if you’re really living in a sanitized bubble then when a germ hits your body, uh oh now what do I do? I think the same thing also applies to the brain. If we try to shield our children from all sorts of stresses, we try to shield them from disappointments, and we constantly try to make their lives "happy" I think we’re doing them a disservice.    

Parents are becoming more involved in the lives of their kids and I think that’s a good thing.  We’ve seen major changes in demographics in the way our society is structured over the last two decades so now we often have both parents working and both parents outside the home.  That intimate, very very tight knowledge of the child, your child, isn’t as strong as it would have been probably when I was a kid.  When that happens I think there is greater uncertainty; is the child well, am I doing the right thing for my child? We may be seeing an overcompensation phenomenon, greater anxiety because both parents aren’t sure if what they’re doing is the best thing for their child.