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The Best Way for Kids to Avoid Toxic Stress? Develop a Growth Mindset

Imagine if scientists discovered a toxic substance that increased the risks of cancer, diabetes, and heart, lung and liver disease for millions of people….something that also increased a child’s risk for smoking, drug abuse, suicide, teen pregnancy, and depression….something that reduced the chances of a child succeeding in school and later performing well on a job…something comparable to the hazards for children presented by lead paint, tobacco smoke, and mercury. “We would do everything in our power to contain it and keep it away from children…right?” asks David Bornstein in a recent New York Times article. Well, there is such a thing, but it’s not a substance. It’s toxic stress.  

Research from human and animal studies alike suggests that stress during early childhood can physically change the brain. It shrinks the prefrontal cortex which controls our executive functions and helps us regulate ourselves both emotionally and cognitively. We know that for adolescent girls, this reduced brain mass means less emotional regulation and for boys less impulse control. Generally it’s clear that children who grow up in a stressful environment will find it harder to concentrate, to sit still, to rebound from disappointment, and to follow directions. These kids will do worse in school and they will do worse in life.

I attended a couple of meetings last summer, read several books, and watched a video series, all of which came highly recommended. Though I didn’t anticipate it, the common theme to all of these was the danger of stress. I’m totally out of my area, but here’s what I took away from it. Robert Sapolsky of Stanford in the video series, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, explains that our nervous system was originally designed to enable us to survive three minutes of terror in “fight or flight” situations. It uses two conflicting yet complementary systems to unconsciously regulate internal organs and glands to try to keep us in balance. The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) mobilizes the body’s nervous system to respond to stress. The Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) stimulates activities—like learning—that occur when the body is able to rest.

So when we see a tiger coming toward us, our stress mobilizes our SNS which activates hormones like cortisol. These hormones increase our blood pressure, prepare our large muscles for fight or flight, activate our immune and clotting systems in case of bites and injury, and reduce our perception of pain. We survive our predator…but our brain under stress has shut down our PNS and non-essential neural circuits. While our brain maximizes our “fight or flight” response under stress, it loses its capacity to learn; we feel anxious, nervous, and depressed; we perceive things people say or do as threatening and negative; and all this arouses greater stress. The problem is that while we need the SNS stress reaction in life threatening situations, today our SNS can’t distinguish between life-threatening predators and road rage. That’s bad for our health.

But stress is also bad for children. Not only does it affect their physical health, but it also affects their ability to learn. 

That said, we also know that stress is a normal part of daily life and the developing child needs to learn how to cope with it. So what can we do as parents to help our children cope with stress? Here’s my three step plan for raising successful children in a stressful world. 

The first step is to form close, nurturing relationships with our children.Paul Tough in his excellent book, How Children Succeed, cites the work McGill University researchers have done with lab rats since the 1990’s. How do you stress rat pups in a lab? A graduate student picks them up, measures them, and records their weight every day. What the McGill researchers began to notice was that when the rat pup was returned to its cage, stressed out from being manhandled, some mother rats called dams rushed over to their pups to lick and groom them; other dams did not. 

Researchers divided the dams into two groups—high LG dams who licked and groomed a lot and low LG dams who didn’t. When the pups were three weeks old, they were weaned and put in a different cage. When they were adults at about 14 weeks, they were given a series of tests to see whether there were differences in the pups who had been licked and groomed and those who hadn’t. The results were striking. The rats from high LG dams were better at mazes, more social, more curious, less aggressive, more self-controlled, healthier, and ultimately lived longer.

So how does this research with rats apply to children?

Vincent Felitti and Robert Anda did a study of the effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences—ACE’s—things such as physical and sexual abuse, physical and emotional neglect, divorced/separated parents, and family members who were incarcerated, mentally ill, or addicted. Their study of 17,000 mainly white, predominately well-educated, middle class adults in San Diego inquired about ten possible ACE’s, and the researchers gave a point for each category of ACE the person had experienced as a child. They concluded that the more ACE’s people experience as children, the more health and social problems they have as adults. In other words, as ACE’s inch up from zero to one…to five to six…to nine to ten, problems such as early sexual encounters, alcoholism, drug addiction, and suicide as well as diseases like cancer and heart attack steadily increase. Not surprising. But what is surprising is that the chances of patients with high ACE’s dying of heart disease, even if they didn’t smoke, drink to excess, and weren’t overweight, were still 4.6X that of patients with zero ACE’s. It was not their life choices that led to heart attacks; it was their childhood stress.

Other researchers assessed children for ACE’s and collected health data for each child. They created a rating of maternal responsiveness including conversations with the child and observations of the child and child’s mother playing a game and followed the children over time. Children who were positively attached to their parents at one year, as Paul Tough writes, were “more socially competent throughout their lives; they were better able to engage with preschool peers, better able to form close friendships in middle childhood, and better able to negotiate the complex dynamics of adolescent social networks.” 

Having now followed these children through high school, they have found that nurturing parental interaction early in life predicted which students would graduate from high school more reliably than IQ or achievement test scores. Mothers, whether rats licking and grooming their pups or humans responding sensitively and quickly to their infants, seemed to have a powerful and long-lasting effect on their children’s lives. The children of these nurturing parents were more curious, more self-reliant, calmer, and better able to deal with obstacles. Their mothers had transmitted to them a resilience that acted as a protective buffer against the problems caused by stress. 

If the first rule is to love our kids, the second rule is to teach them.  Our kids not only need our love, they also need to know what they are supposed to do, what our expectations are for them, how we think they are doing, and most importantly how they could have done better.  Our kids don’t really need us to be their friends; they do need us to be their mentors, and one important way we can guide them is to give them our honest feedback. 

A study initially about cultural differences illustrated the importance of honest, helpful feedback. Fifth graders were brought to a testing site by their parents. Half the parents were Chinese, half were not. During a break after the first half of the test, the parents were shown their child’s actual test and told that their child’s score was below average…whether that was true or not. The conversations between the parents and their kids were secretly filmed. The Chinese mothers immediately looked over the test with their children and the problems they had missed and told them what they had done wrong and that they needed to try harder. The non-Chinese mothers, on the other hand, were positive and upbeat with their kids. They avoided saying anything negative about the test, even though they had been told that their children had done poorly on it, and chose instead to talk pleasantly about anything but the testing at hand.  So who did better on the second half of the test? The scores of the Chinese kids went up 33%, more than twice the gain for the non-Chinese kids.

In addition to giving our kids feedback to help them do better, we need to teach our kids the importance of being conscientious, of being willing to try and of working hard.  Thomas Edison was right when he said, “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration,” and yet very few children score high in conscientiousness. Psychologists have explored this phenomenon by administering what has been dubbed the world’s most boring test, a coding-speed test. People are given an answer key with a few four digit numbers representing simple words. Then, directly below the key, are the questions:

  game – 2715    chin – 3231    house – 4232  hat – 4568    room – 2864

                           A                      B                      C                      D                      E

1.  hat              2715                4232                4568                3231                2864

2.  house          4232                2715                4568                3231                2864

3.  chin             4232                2715                3231                4568                2864

 

All the participant has to do is circle the right number for each word, obviously a very simple task. What the test really measures is the willingness and ability of people to force themselves to care about something they care absolutely nothing about. What the data from these tests has ultimately shown is that for non-college graduates, their coding-speed test score was as good of a predictor of their adult wages as their cognitive test scores.

Conscientiousness is an important non-cognitive skill like perseverance, self-control, empathy, resilience, and grit.  And kids who score high in conscientiousness get better grades in school, commit fewer crimes, stay married longer, and live longer, healthier lives.  We don’t want to stifle the creativity of our kids or train them to be mindless automatons, but we do need to teach them that sometimes they need to be willing to do things they’d rather not do and they need to be able to do those things well.

Beside giving feedback and teaching conscientiousness, there is one other thing we need to teach our children—we need to teach them the importance of helping other people. 

As I mentioned earlier, we activate our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) to deal with stress but this has unintended consequences. So we need to activate our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) as quickly and often as we can to regain balance and to rebuild our body and our mind. It’s the PNS that regenerates brain growth…that creates renewal…that lifts us and opens us up to new possibilities…that allows us to start to feel happy and dream again. One of the best ways to engage our PNS is to think about how we can help others. As we focus on helping others, this aroused compassion activates different neural circuits. These neural circuits release different hormones that reduce blood pressure and calm us down. We feel more hopeful and optimistic, our stress is reduced, and the people we help have their stress reduced as well. This is why we’ve known for at least the last 2000 years that “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

Our kids need to feel our love and learn from our wisdom.  But they still need more than an enriched, purposeful, and loving environment if they are to thrive. 

So besides loving and guiding our kids, we need to make sure they feel they have some control over their lives. We’ve known for a long time that the more helpless we feel when confronting stress, the more toxic the effects of that stress will be. 

An animal research experiment divided dogs into two groups. The first group of dogs was given a stress—electric shocks—but were able to press a panel with their noses to make the shocks stop. The second group of dogs was also given the shocks, but had no ability to make them stop. The dogs in the first group recovered fine from the stress.  But the dogs in the second group, those that had been helpless to stop the pain, became dispirited, depressed, and helpless. 

In a follow-up experiment, the same dogs were then placed in an enclosed box separated by a low barrier over which they could see. When the shocks were administered, all the dogs had the opportunity to easily escape the pain by jumping over the partition. That is what the dogs in the first group did. But the dogs in the second group, those which had previously learned that there was nothing they could do to escape the shocks, simply whimpered and took it. They had come to believe that nothing they did mattered; they were victims of “learned helplessness.” 

The experiment was repeated with other animals, babies, and adult humans, and the results were the same. Once subjects had been exposed to a stressful situation over which they had no control, they would continue to feel helpless, even in situations where they did have control.

So what can we do to give our kids this sense of control? I’ve often written about the benefits of Carol Dweck’s growth mindset. In contrast to a fixed mindset, children with a growth mindset believe that intelligence is malleable, not fixed; that it’s important to try, even if you fail; and that when you do fail, you should not give up but try harder. Kids with a fixed mindset believe that intelligence is fixed and unchanging; that talented people don’t have to try because they are smart; and that when you don’t understand, the best thing to do is to cheat or lie so you don’t fail and cause people to question your talent. Kids with a fixed mindset simply believe there is nothing they can do to get better. They feel like the dogs in the box that have no control over their lives.

Dweck showed how easy it is to help kids overcome a fixed mindset. She gave a first test of easy puzzles to fifth graders, and when they finished them successfully, they were given just one sentence of feedback. Some were told that they must be smart while the others were told they must have worked really hard. The kids were then given a choice for their second test. They could choose an easy puzzle, like the first, or a difficult puzzle from which they were told they would learn a lot. A majority of the kids praised for being smart chose the easy puzzle; 90% of the kids praised for working hard chose the hard puzzle. They then took a third test that was very difficult and all the fifth graders predictably failed. Those originally praised for their effort on the first easy test said they just had not worked at it hard enough; those praised for being smart were emotionally churning and despondent because they assumed they failed because they weren’t smart enough this time. The children then took a final test, similar to the first relatively easy test. Those children originally praised for their hard work saw their test scores go up an average of 30%. Those praised for being smart saw their scores go down an average of 20%.

Kids who develop a growth mindset understand that it’s ok to make mistakes.  They understand that mistakes are our best teachers and help us continue to grow and learn. 

When I heard Paul Tough speak at a conference last summer, he said something surprising. He was asked if IQ is malleable. He smiled and said that the fixed mindset group is right about the facts. After about age eight, IQ doesn’t change. But the growth mindset group is right, too, because if children can be convinced that trying harder will make them smarter, and if they then try harder, they may not increase their IQ but they will definitely be more successful. And success—not an IQ number—is what really matters. 

Which is why it is so unfortunate that 85% of American parents still think it’s important to tell our kids how smart they are. We couldn’t be more wrong…even when we’re right. Dweck’s work with middle schoolers showed that if we consistently praise children for their effort, not their intelligence, we can get our kids to try, we can develop their conscientiousness, perseverance, grit, and other non-cognitive skills, and we can get them to learn. After all, the kids who fail to learn don’t fail because they aren’t smart enough. They fail because they don’t try hard enough. But if we are willing to commit to doing three things—to loving, teaching, and trusting our children—I have no doubt that they will grow up to be stress resistant and incredibly successful.