Like adults, children of all ages struggle with stress. Infants may feel stress due to a mother’s depression or a noisy environment. Preschoolers may experience anxiety when separated from their parents and adolescents can feel stress due to academic and social pressures.
In addition, kids’ stress may be intensified by more than just what’s happening in their own lives. Do your kids hear you talking about troubles at work, worrying about a relative’s illness or arguing with your spouse about financial matters? Or, world news, such as natural disasters, war and terrorism, can worry kids about their own safety, adding to their stress.
“There are a lot of things that are stressful and there’s a certain level of stress that is normal,” said Dr. Laura Rocker, a child psychiatrist and medical director for Akron Children’s partial hospitalization program. “Part of growing up is learning how to master that stress.”
While it’s not always easy to recognize when kids are stressed out, short-term behavioral changes such as mood swings, acting out, changes in sleep patterns or bedwetting can be indications. Some kids have physical effects, including stomachaches and headaches. Others have trouble concentrating or completing schoolwork. Still others become withdrawn or spend a lot of time alone.
Younger kids may pick up new habits like thumb sucking, hair twirling or nose picking. A child who is stressed also may overreact to minor problems, have nightmares, become clingy or have drastic changes in academic performance.
“Stress can have an affect on kids emotionally, socially and physically,” said Dr. Rocker. “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.”
If you think you’re child is stressed, teach her these 5 techniques to help her cope.
- Get support. When your child needs help, instruct her to reach out to the people who care about her most. Tell her to talk to a trusted adult, such as a parent, other relative, school counselor or coach. And don’t forget about her friends. They might be worried about the same test or have had similar problems, such as dealing with a divorce or the death of a beloved pet.
- Don’t freak out! It’s easy for kids to let their feelings go wild when they’re upset. Teach your child to notice his feelings and name them. For example, “I am so angry!” Ask him to say or think about why he feels that way, and then help him find a way to calm down, get past the upset feelings and express them. Things like breathing exercises, listening to music, writing in a journal, playing with a pet, or going for a walk or bike ride can help him shift to a better mood.
- Don’t take it out on yourself. Sometimes when kids are stressed and upset they take it out on themselves. That’s not a good idea. Remind your child that there are always people to help and not to take it out on herself. Tell her to be kind to herself and ask for the helping hand or pat on the back that she needs — and deserves — to get through the tough situation she’s facing.
- Try to solve the problem. Once calm and she has the support from adults and friends, it’s time to get down to business. Help your child figure out what the problem is and what steps she can take to solve it. Even if she can’t solve all of it, maybe she can begin by solving a piece of it.
- Be positive — most stress is temporary. Remind your child that it may not seem like it when you’re in the middle of a stressful situation, but stress does go away, often when you figure out the problem and start working on solving it.
As parents, it’s important to keep the lines of communication open, so your child can talk to you about what’s bothering her. 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, talk to her pediatrician. He can refer you to a psychiatrist or psychologist who is specially trained to work with children.