Stress is defined as the body’s reaction to change, expressed through physical, emotional, and intellectual responses. Stress in children can be caused by many different factors, such as the home environment, social pressures, relationships, etc.
Research has found that there is a huge gap between what parents and adults think children are stressed about versus what kids actually stress about. Parents' ignorance of the stress levels of their kids could result in long-term effects on their children's mental and physical health.
So, if you believe your child is showing behavioral symptoms or dealing with any physical effects of stress, it's your responsibility, especially with younger children, to acknowledge it, teach them coping skills, and healthy ways of managing it.
If this feeling is becoming a constant in their life, consider talking with a doctor about potential anxiety disorders and getting professional help for managing stress.
The first step to helping children deal with stress is to educate yourself on the symptoms of stress. This can sometimes be difficult as some are not as obvious as others. However, some physical symptoms and emotional or behavioral cues that indicate early childhood stress and stress in older children are:
Once you've identified their symptoms of stress, whether they are physical symptoms or emotional or behavioral cues, it's time to find the root of these negative thoughts and if necessary, get immediate help.
Things that seem minuscule to parents can feel like the end of the world for many kids. There could be constant stressors in their life that are affecting them on a daily basis.
Stress in children can be induced by both positive and negative experiences or thoughts. In positive situations, one’s stress may make them feel alert, motivated, and prepared to protect themselves. In negative situations, one may feel like they are unable to relax or find relief from feeling stressed. They will begin to feel overwhelmed and can develop a condition called distress.
Being able to identify unresolved stress in children is important because there are so many things that can be causing it. However, if you're able to think ahead about the types of stressful situations that are triggering for your child, you can better support and prepare them.
Some common stressors include:
Stressing about being separated from parents or family members is very common, especially in young children. Does your child throw temper tantrums whenever they have a babysitter or are dropped off at school? They may feel an overwhelming sense of anxiety every time they are away from home or you and act out to cope. This anxiety can be caused by the thought that they are unsafe and aren't sure how to handle certain situations without the comfort of their parents.
School can cause constant feelings of stress. They may feel stressed about the amount of schoolwork they have or their ability to succeed academically. With virtual learning and social distancing, they could be feeling even more lost or unmotivated to challenge themselves.
Another common stressor most children and teens experience daily is the social pressure to ‘fit in’. With social media, it's very easy to see what everyone else is up to and feel the need to compare their life to the lives of other kids. They may feel worried that they will lose friends, be bullied, or become lonely if they don't meet these social expectations. This could drastically impact their self-worth and confidence, so it's important to keep an eye on this for the sake of their mental health.
Believe it or not, your own stress could be rubbing off on them. If they overhear you talking about issues at work, arguing in the home, or worrying about the health of family/friends, they may begin to pick up on this tension and feel overwhelmed. After all, you're their role model and even if it's minor problems you're complaining about, they will likely become aware that it is causing tension.
The death of loved ones or the divorce/separation of parents can cause significant stress for younger children even if it seems as if the situation was handled in the best way. It can be stressful for them to be constantly thinking about these types of things without knowing the full context or understanding the scope of adult problems.
With internet access, they are constantly seeing news about different things happening around the world. This could be devastation caused by natural disasters, the implications of war, etc. This overload of negative information can cause anyone stress and anxiety, especially young people who are already overly worried about the safety and well-being of themselves and the people they love.
Are they over-scheduling extracurricular activities? While extracurricular activities may offer some relief, over-scheduling can build anxiety. If your child feels overwhelmed with the number of commitments they have, it may be time to reevaluate.
Are they experiencing anticipated changes in their life? Are they transferring to a new school, expecting a new sibling, being introduced to stepparents, or starting new sports activities? These changes can turn into new or recurring fears for them.
Are they perfectionists? This tends to be more common among firstborns and only children, but your child's behavior can begin reflecting Type A personality traits at a young age. They face the internal struggle of never feeling good enough and worrying about doing everything perfectly causing high levels of stress in almost every area of their life.
You know your child better than anyone and will likely notice negative behavioral signs when they become stressed. So, how can you encourage mental wellness and help them with handling these stressors, emotional symptoms, and physical symptoms?
Handling stress looks different for everyone. The practices that work best to relieve your stress may or may not work for your children. This process will require some trial and error but the benefits will make for a more positive and stress-free life for them. Here are some things that could alleviate some stress and help your child cope with their physical and emotional symptoms.
It's recommended that children ages 6-13 get 9-11 hours each night. Make this a priority!
This includes whole grains, a source of protein, vegetables, fruits, and plenty of water. This is especially important if one of their symptoms of stress is a decreased appetite.
Prioritize some one-on-one time with your child. This could include doing fun activities like playing games, going out to eat together, exploring outside, taking advantage of car rides, or binging your favorite show together. Family routines that involve quality time can be a consistent way for you to assess their feelings.
Talk about how you've noticed they are stressed and work with them to figure out what's going on in your child's life. Once you know the types of situations that cause them stress, find alternatives. If these situations are unavoidable, take the time to talk with your child about them ahead of time so that they can mentally prepare.
You won't always have the answers to all of their problems. But, listening to what they have to say could help them relieve some of the pressures they are feeling. You may discover other physical symptoms they are having that you didn't know about!
Reassure them that it's okay to feel this way. These emotions are a normal part of life and do not need to be permanent. Every situation has the potential to create stress. Understanding that it's okay to feel this way can help alleviate additional stressors.
Many children can feel stressed when they're not finding the time to relieve themselves from daily responsibilities. Encourage simple activities like watching their favorite movie, reading a book, doing physical activity, or listening to music. Anything that can help them stay calm and give them time for themselves can help relieve this pressure.
Seeing your children's mental health be heavily impacted by high levels of stress is heartbreaking and can even result in you becoming stressed. But, practicing these different forms of self-care with your children will teach them healthy habits for coping with stress.
As parents, it's important that you stay committed to talking with them even if it seems like there's nothing to talk about. It's all about consistently checking in! Your children will feel more comfortable opening up to you when they need to and you'll feel more confident in your parenting.
If you believe they are developing an anxiety disorder from high amounts of stress, seek professional help. Stress in children is not always handled the same way adults may handle it. A professional can provide this specialized insight to help relieve stress and create a customized plan of action.
Parents aren't meant to know everything even when it comes to their own children. Know that you're doing your best, your child will get through this, and their mental health will benefit from it!