Why do some children find it more difficult than others to deal with stress? We tend to think of stress as a ‘bad thing’, but all human lives contain some elements of stress, and difficult problems that must be solved. Although people do have different underlying, biologically inherited basic temperaments, the majority of interpersonal difference in stress-coping is emergent from the ways in which we were cared for in the early years of life, when our stress coping mechanisms were calibrated. This ‘setting’ is carried forward into later childhood and adulthood. However, there are strategies that teachers and carers in later life can use to moderate problematic high stress levels, if they have a basic understanding of infant attachment and stress biology.
Attachment theory was created by the British psychologist John Bowlby over the period directly following World War II (1939–45), based on his extensive work with children traumatised by separation and bereavement.
Bowlby proposed infant attachment to parents and other regular carers in infanthood was biologically generated in both humans and animals, due to the fact that it is adaptive. Human infants who are attached to the adults who care for them and vice-versa have a powerful source of protection from danger. His theory predicted that if such bonds were never made, or were broken in the first three years of life, the person would experience lifelong emotional problems.
He further theorised that human beings create an ‘Internal Working Model’ (IWM) in the subconscious level of their mind, which provides them with a ‘blueprint’ for how relationships between people work.
This comprised a concept of what the person has learned to expect from other people, alongside a corresponding concept of their own ‘lovability.’ Broadly, this works as follows:
Of course, there is a complex balance of positive and negative in nearly all human relationships, with the exception of the most deeply abusive.
Later research, undertaken to test how the IWM worked in practice, found that parents and carers differ in the signals that they send out to children:
It is important to point out here that no parent or carer is perfect- we all get things wrong from time to time. The above are three simplified, stereotyped models. Also, some parents may have the best of intentions, but their own life stresses, for example poverty and/or mental health problems, can lead them to be a less sensitive parent than they would otherwise have been. However, in general:
In practice, the majority of human infants develop a few minor insecurities, because there are no perfect adults. It’s the level of these insecurities that is the key point as the people mature; whether they are generally manageable, or overwhelming to the extent that they frequently struggle to cope with everyday life.
Children who have experienced actively abusive environments (luckily a small minority), develop a different characteristic IWM, which views the self as deeply unlovable, and adults as malevolently powerful beings. Such children are subsequently very wary of other people, adults in particular, and frequently struggle to cope with interpersonal interactions, veering between fear, dismissal and aggression. Psychologists describe this as a ‘disorganised’ response.
Further research has indicated that we all carry our IWM into adulthood to some extent, and that it impacts on our relationships with other adults and eventually our own children. However, what happens to us in later life can make some minor adjustments to this, for good or ill.
A range of 21st century studies discovered abnormally raised levels of the stress hormone cortisol in young children in situations in which they did not feel secure in the care that they were receiving. Cortisol is the hormone that creates the ‘fight or flight’ response in the body, not just in human beings, but in all mammalian species.
In these studies, children’s cortisol levels were found to be consistently lower in situations where adults were calm and affectionate, and paid close attention to their communications and needs, and higher where adults paid little, or poorly judged attention to them.
If infants experience heightened stress in their day-to-day care, the initial ‘set up’ of their stress reaction system is fixed at ‘high alert’. This means that, in later childhood and adulthood, they are highly reactive to situations that put them under even moderate levels of stress.
This research, in effect, discovered the biology underlying insecure attachment behaviours.
In later childhood, higher resting cortisol levels have also been linked to poorer ‘executive functioning’. Behaviour associated with this includes:
In school and other educational situations, children with high resting cortisol levels exhibit a variety of problematic behaviours, including:
It is not just about what happened in the past, however. Children’s current situations, both at home and at school can either moderate or exacerbate negative thoughts and behaviours.
One of the things that adults both at home and at school can do to help an over-stressed child in ‘meltdown’ is to use their own emotional coping systems to bolster the child’s. This is accomplished by a response that demonstrates understanding of the child’s behaviour, rather than anger and/or rejection. In this way, the adult validates the child’s emotions whilst offering empathy and assistance to him/her to ‘contain’ them. In doing so, they not only calm the immediate situation, but also model calm, coping responses to anger and sadness.
Psychologists call this process ‘co-regulation’; providing children an emotional ‘scaffold’ to manage their behavioural responses at times when the level of external stress is too much for them to deal with alone. Occasional responses like this from transient adults will make little difference, but if children get used to some adults who play regular roles in their lives supporting them in this way, they are likely, over time, to become more successful at managing their own emotions, constructing an enhanced level of ability to self-regulate.
It must be emphasised that ‘containing’ does not mean suppressing negative emotion, but modelling calmness and offering support to for the child to help him/her to express feelings as constructively as possible, and to deal with stressful situations more calmly and effectively.
Responses from adults that conversely increase the child’s stress levels include:
Both types of response confirm the ‘other people will not help me, and I am an unlovable person’ constructs that already exist in the child’s IWM, and therefore impact negatively upon their ability to self-regulate.
Offering empathy and assistance is, conversely, challenging these beliefs, demonstrating to the child that some adults are helpful, and that the child him/herself is worthy of positive regard.
This all looks so easy written on a page. But it seldom is in practice. Children with negative IWMs can be extremely challenging. Co-regulation takes a lot of time, patience, compassion and forbearance.
It is unlikely to be possible, even for the most patient adult, to fully compensate for a difficult infancy, or for ongoing dysfunctional relationships within a child’s present family. But over time, regular coregulation is likely to bring some benefit.
There is a concept called ‘earned secure’ in classical attachment theory which describes a situation in which a coregulating adult has patiently worked with a young person over a long period of time, and has managed to make a significant, positive adjustment to their IWM. This may not be fully recognised by the young person at the time, but is frequently realised when reflecting back in adulthood.
Veteran footballer Ian Wright described on YouTube how one of his schoolteachers successfully coregulated with him, over a sustained period of time. He comments that, as a schoolchild, he had an: “intense and oppressive home life…I was very angry all the time.”
He found reading and writing difficult, which he would cover with disruptive behaviour in the classroom (a very common strategy resorted to by frightened and angry children). When Ian was regularly sent out of the classroom, a teacher called Mr Pigden started to take an interest in him. Ian remembers: “he used to speak to me. He used to sit down and take the time to talk to me about everyday life…. Once he saw I could play football, he really kicked in… he gave me a little bit of self-worth.”
Ian credits his former teacher for having turned him into a “decent bloke”, saying, “Because of him, I am who I am. He’s somebody I can never forget.”
You can watch Ian’s emotional reunion with Mr Pigden (who has since died) on the video.
The simple answer to this is yes, probably, although we sometimes forget the many stresses that impacted on previous generations (for example, child labour, war time evacuation, a much higher chance of being orphaned).
However, our current generation of children:
Being aware of your own attachment style and levels of stress-coping is very important. If you feel that your everyday life and health is being threatened by high levels of stress, seek help from your GP in the first instance. If you feel your stress levels are being unreasonably elevated by unrealistic expectations at work, seek help from your line manager or union representative.
Highly stressed adults find it difficult to support highly stressed children, it is extremely difficult to coregulate when you are struggling to self-regulate.
Where you feel that a child needs a level of help that you are not trained to provide, or that you do not have the time or resources to provide, be relentless in pursuing support for them, through triggering safeguarding procedures if necessary.
The whole world is going through a difficult period for emotional health in the early 2020s, in a post-pandemic era of economic problems, international conflict and political turmoil. But we still have a duty to children to make their childhood years as supportive, caring and stress free as possible, which means seeking out solutions, both individually and collectively, as problems arise.
When home is a tinderbox, school/ care settings should provide a haven. It is only in this way that we will produce a mentally robust generation, ready to deal with the considerable challenges of increasingly complex technology and environmental change.
You can read more about my cortisol, attachment and stress research in this journal article.
Dr Pam Jarvis is a Chartered Psychologist and Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society. Between 1994 and 2019, she taught in school, further, higher and community education, and was Reader in Childhood and Education at Leeds Trinity University between 2016 and 2019. She is now enjoying semi-retirement as an academic and fiction author, and as a citizen journalist and assistant editor with Bylines Network. Her first novel ‘On Time’ was published by Burton-Meyers in 2021. She is currently working on the sequel ‘On Time for Eco’.
You can read our interview with Dr Pam Jarvis in our Voices from the Sector section. Here you will find links to other articles and books she has written, as well as her vision for the future of education.
Blog – The Psychological Historian
Twitter – @Dr_Pam_Jarvis