Nurturing our future

When the news about the murder of a Khon Kaen karaoke girl broke earlier this month, several media outlets started to dig up the childhood history of the suspect Preeyanuch “Preaw” Nonwangchai, who allegedly killed and dismembered her friend in cold blood.

Preeyanuch’s mother came out and admitted that there was domestic violence in her family in which her husband severely abused her when Preeyanuch was only five years old — attributing this as a cause for her daughter’s repressed anger and aggressiveness.

Expressing her concern over the issue, child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr Benjaporn Tuntasood said that an emotionally unhealthy child who was raised in a stressful family environment can potentially grow up to become an emotionally unhealthy adult, although this is not always the case.

“There is this research which studied factors that contribute to the happiness of an adult. The study reveals that a child’s emotional health plays a big role in shaping how he or she will be when older. A happy adult usually had a happy childhood. And parents’ good emotional health, especially that of the mother, mostly leads to a child being happy,” said Dr Benjaporn, also founder of parenting Facebook page Ken Dek Kuen Phu Kao (Pushing A Child Up The Hill) and child psychiatrist at Nawabutr Women and Children Medical Centre.

In this modern world full of competition, bad media and social headaches, childhood stress has become more common and raises concerns among parents and psychiatrists alike. According to a 2016 study on adolescent situations compiled by Unicef, 30-50% of Thai students at all education levels reported academic stress. The country saw a 63% increase from 2011-2013 when it comes to the number of children seeking mental health support, based on statistics from the Department of Mental Health.

Dr Benjaporn said that although childhood is supposed to be the period when children play, learn and enjoy things around them, they can be stressed too — just like adults. The only difference is how the little ones react to stress and pressure.

“When children are in negative circumstances where, for instance, mum and dad fight or where an intoxicated dad physically abuses mum, kids might feel anxious and stressed, but they do not know how to talk about their feelings. So they cry or show some behavioural changes. This is how they react to stressful situations, especially if those situations happen to someone they love,” explained the child psychiatrist.

Childhood stress can be caused by many factors — both at home and at school — including parental fighting, divorce, mum’s poor health, teachers with a fiery temper, homework overload or frequent exams, to name only a few. A kid’s internal factors, such as his or her own bad health which requires them to visit a hospital often, can also potentially lead to them being stressed. Violence portrayed in the media can also be a reason for childhood stress when they are exposed to an excess of it.

So how do we know when a child is stressed?

“Scientifically speaking, stress triggers the release of hormones inside the body, resulting in a faster heartbeat, high blood pressure and tense muscles,” she added. “Children’s bodies might however respond differently to stress. They might become increasingly fussy and less patient. When pressured by stress, children might stick more to their caregivers. They might show signs of delayed development, abnormal sleep patterns and a change in eating habits. They might also respond to stress physically such as headaches, stomach pain, nausea and vomiting. Some even pee their pants.

“In a worst-case scenario, a stressful child might end up hurting themselves, committing suicide or hurting other people,” Dr Benjaporn added. “If they blame themselves, they will kill themselves. But if they blame the world and people around them until finally they have the urge to destroy others, they might grow up and become a murderer.”

The way parents raise up a child indeed plays an extremely significant role in whether or not a child will become stressed out and aggressive but it is not the only thing to blame, said Dr Benjaporn, citing research on nature versus nurture.

“A criminal’s child doesn’t necessarily grow up and become a criminal,” she commented. “If the child is brought up by someone else who is caring and kind-hearted, they can grow up and become a good adult. In all, both nature and nurture affects a child’s personality. But we cannot change the nature, nurture can always be adjusted. Parents can always start anew if they feel like they are raising their kids in the wrong way.”

To keep childhood stress at bay, Dr Benjaporn advised finding out the root cause of a child’s stress as the first and most important thing to do. If it is caused by parental fighting, fix the parents or let the child stay with other relatives elsewhere so that they can live in a more emotionally healthy atmosphere.

“Visit a child and adolescent psychiatrist if a child’s stress affects his or her daily life, family members or people at school. Society’s and parents’ attitudes towards psychiatric consultation should also be changed. Taking your child to a psychiatrist doesn’t mean he or she is insane. Do not wait until the situation turns so severe that it cannot be solved.”

And giving children enough time is also key to healing childhood stress.

“These days a lot of parents have no time for kids. But to build up a strong, healthy family, time is golden. And in today’s world, children are so influenced by media and technology. Parents must know what kids are up to and ensure that they use technology in moderation. We cannot change the environment, but we can change ourselves.”