Are These The Four S’s of 21st Century Childhood – Stress Sadness Screens Sugar??

Are These The Four S’s of 21st Century Childhood – Stress Sadness Screens Sugar?? 150 150 Jane Evans



Images from Pixabay


I held a screening of the amazing Resilience documentary in Bristol yesterday. It was the third time I’d watched so for the first few minutes I was tweeting about it and not paying attention. Then suddenly I put my phone down and really tuned into what was being said.

Two things hit me squarely between eyes:

  1. How misunderstood the common experiences of stress are for babies and young children
  2. How easily we overlook and minimise, or even deny, children’s stress

I’m not referring to every day stresses which help a child to be fired up enough to engage in life, love and learning.

“Oooops, I’ve lost my pencil case”, “I can’t stand next to my friend in the que”, “This is a tough puzzle”.

Momentary stresses for a child whose had enough input from emotionally available adults means they experience it as, being stuck and scared at the top of a rollercoaster ride and having someone kindly and safely bring them down again. With repetition children internalise ways to do this themselves as they grow into adulthood. Connections are made in the brain and body and survival systems don’t go in to threat-survival modes!

How misunderstood the common experiences of stress are for children

When I am stressed I get sad, tired, overwhelmed and a range of pain in areas of my body. I relieve this stress in a variety of ways:

  • Body-based – bending, swaying, breathing, stretching, applying essential oils
  • Process my feelings – I talk to a loved-one, or whoever is within my orbit
  • Rationalise – I engage my more rational upper brain and find something to be grateful for (that’s the hardest one to do!)
Babies and young children can’t do any of this!

They need help from caring adults. They have no internal structures to move from being emotionally and physically stressed and uncomfortable to calm and comfortable. They can’t change their poo filled nappy/diaper, they can’t not feel scared if they get lonely in the night, they can’t leave a room if someone is yelling, they can’t go and get a snack if they feel hungry or go for a nap if they are exhausted. They remain stuck at the top of the rollercoaster ride alone, increasingly scared stressed and sad.

If they experience this too often, for too long without adult physical and emotional soothing and regulation they experience toxic levels of stress which prime their body and brain to leap to this level for most daily occurrences. Sadly, the 21st century world they are growing up is making this more likely to happen.

How easily do we overlook and minimize children’s stress

Nowadays babies and children can easily be soothed from their stress in 2 readily available ways – screens and sugar!

It can be hard to imagine why babies and toddlers would experience stress like we do. After all, they don’t have worries about work, relationships, health, appearance etc. However, babies and young children are highly sensitive to changes in adult caregiver’s physical and emotional state and in the environment around them as they are mostly intuition due to lack of brain development. At the same time they can’t say anything or get up and leave a situation!

So do we care less about children now?

Of course not!

BUT, daily 21st century life is less geared towards simple face to face interactions, conversations and physical contact. My friend and colleague Dr. Suzanne Zeedyk frequently talks and writes about the need for connection. For example, she is rightly passionate about the harm outward facing buggies do to babies and children’s emotional development.

Worryingly there are a plethora of devices now that make caring for babies almost a ‘non-contact sport!!!!’ Smartphone and tablet holders for them and their caregivers, a range of bottle holders so being fed can be a ‘hands-free’ task, and the latest horror I’ve come across is a stroller that can be operated from an app. There is no need even to hold on to it, or to go and see your baby as it can all be done via an app.

Screens and sugar are addictive

If a child is emotionally distracted and soothed by a screen then it releases dopamine into their system. Dopamine is the ‘pleasure-seeking’ hormone; it is also the hormone of addiction.

Sugar has a similar effect as child feels temporarily emotionally and physically numbed by it, as they do by screens. In addition, sugar is known to have slight pain-relieving qualities. After all when we are stressed mostly we crave chocolate, cake, fizzy sugary drinks etc. Tooth decay is currently at high levels for little ones, over 9,000 extractions in 2015/15 for 1 to 4 year olds in the UK.

                                                             Stress & Distress

                      Emotionally & Physically Soothed                               Sugar or Screen (both)

What to do?
  • Be educated and be real!
  • Limit YOUR time on screens – babies and children are great imitators
  • Don’t let any babies or young children on them
  • Keep sugar to a recommended level
  • Don’t use sugary foods and drinks as a ‘feel better’ solution (a tough one!!)
  • Remember babies and children are soothed by your presence
  • Bodies love bodies
  • Brains love brains
  • Faces love faces
  • Ensure YOU have support so you CAN have down time to recharge emotionally as well as physically
  • Believe that YOU are more than enough

Know it all takes time – especially if your child is used to being soothed by a screen or sugar you may have to gradually decrease these but don’t delay!

To explore working with Jane:  
Jane Evans

Jane is a ‘learn the hard way’ person. She has learnt from her personal experiences and her direct work with people who have often been in really bad places emotionally, relationally, practically and sometimes professionally.

All stories by: Jane Evans
1 comment
  • Kat Walsh

    This is great Jane. I have worked in parenting support for 15 years now educating parents and carers on supporting a child’s journey through each phase of their lives and understanding the importance of growing with the child being holistic in their parenting approach allowing room for discussion and compromise aswell as showing empathy towards our children within today’s expectations… message to parents keep it real. (Also as a Parent 12 years ago I wanted a forward facing PRAM and the sales assistant didn’t understand until late I explained I want to communicate and make my baby feel safe…great research Dr)

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