“Today, kids of all ages are often confronted by extensive media coverage of disasters and other crises, as disturbing or frightening images are replayed over and over,” said Dr. Laura Rocker, pediatric psychiatrist at Akron Children’s Hospital. “This can be very stressful to both children and adults.”
Dr. Rocker also believes our kids face greater academic and economic pressures.
“In today’s world, it is difficult to succeed in life without academic success, and kids don’t necessarily have as many future career options without an education, as did previous generations,” Dr. Rocker said. “At the same time, our society measures success in financial terms.”
In fact, doing well in school is the greatest source of stress for kids ages 8 to 17, according to a study by the American Psychological Association. Worrying about their family having enough money is second.
Stressful situations such as divorce, the loss of a loved one, poverty or illness can affect children of any age. Parents’ own stress levels can also have an effect, with kids often worrying about the same things as their parents.
When parents are stressed, they often have less time for their children – which adds to their kids’ stress levels.
Other sources of stress are age specific. For example, preschoolers may worry about separation from mom and dad or monsters under the bed, while older kids worry about fitting in at school or how good they are at something.
For teens, friends, social pressures, romance and the future are all common stressors.
Some stress such as worrying about a big test can be positive, often motivating kids to study hard and make sure they’re prepared.
How can I tell if my child is stressed out?
Too much negative stress can take its toll and lead to anxiety disorders, depression or even physical illness. Watch for emotional or behavioral cues that your child is under too much stress, such as:
- Irritation or moodiness
- Trouble sleeping
- Clinginess or being unusually fearful
- Reluctance to try new things
- Withdrawing from activities he usually enjoys
- Frequent crying or emotional outbursts
“Stress in kids often manifests into headaches or stomachaches that don’t have an underlying physical cause,” Dr. Rocker said.
What can parents do?
It’s important to keep the lines of communication open, so your child can talk to you about what’s bothering her. Strike a balance between keeping your adult perspective and understanding that concerns you might think are trivial or insignificant are very important to her.
Make sure your child feels like you’re on his side and, as much as possible, home is a safe haven.
Create a fun family life, where you and your child can relax and enjoy each other’s company.
“This does not mean taking expensive vacations or buying the latest toys, but spending time together in activities you enjoy, such as a picnic in the park or family game night,” Dr. Rocker said.
Spending time together can also provide opportunities for your child to open up about what’s really bothering her. Having a friend that she can confide in is also helpful, especially for teens.
If a particular situation is causing your child stress, role-play with him regarding how to handle it. For example, if he’s worried about taking the bus to school for the first time, role-play about what he should do if he misses it, or is unsure of which one to board.
A certain amount of stress is inevitable – and important, as it teaches kids how to manage life’s ups and downs.
“One of the greatest gifts parents can give their kids is teaching them how to cope when things go wrong and to understand that it isn’t the end of the world,” said Dr. Rocker.
When is it time to seek help?
If your child is coping with a difficult situation, such as the loss of a loved one, or if excessive stress is affecting her sleep or school performance, or causing other significant changes, seek professional help.
Talk to your pediatrician or doctor, who can refer you to a psychiatrist or psychologist who is specially trained to work with children.
Anxiety disorders, such as panic attacks, can occur when a child’s worries become overwhelming. Depression can also be triggered by a traumatic event or change, especially in kids who are prone to it.
“These disorders are very treatable and kids can and do get better,” Dr. Rocker said.