Stress is a human reaction when one comes under emotional or physical pressure. Both good and bad life changes or events can cause stress in children. However, each child’s stress response may vary depending on their ability to accept and adapt to a stressful situation.
Not all children have the innate ability and resilience to cope with anxiety and unrest due to stress. Children who are slow at stress management may often face more hurdles and difficulties.
Despite the cause, you may encourage and support your child to manage stress. It is also essential to provide a healthy home environment where children can learn stress management and other essential life skills.
Read on to know about stress in children and ways to help them cope with it.
Symptoms Of Stress In Children
A child’s reaction to stress depends on their age, previous experiences, innate and learned ability to cope with stress. Yet, there are some common signs and symptoms of stress amongst children (1) (2).
Behavioral or emotional symptoms
Easy exhaustion and a general sense of weakness
Anxiousness visble through hand shaking, thumb sucking, nail biting
Changes in eating behavior, such as loss of loss of appetite or over eating
Sleep disturbances and headache
Terrors, such as fear of darkness or night tremors
Acute or chronic bedwetting enueresis
Irritability and extreme temper tantrums
Gastrointestinal disturbances, such as upset stomach
Mood swings and frustration
Nightmares and nocturnal awakening
Aggressive and stubborn behavior
Unexplained body pains and feeling of sickness
Sadness and social withdrawal
Apart from these changes, children under stress often show a loss of interest in activities they used to like before. Also, their focus and attention deteriorate, affecting their academic and extracurricular performance. In extreme cases, older teens might even indulge in substance abuse and anti-social behavior.
Possible Causes Of Stress In Children
- High expectations to do exceptionally well in school
- Constant juggle between academic and extracurricular activities
- Inability to accept failure
- Comparisons between kids
- Peer pressure or bullying at school
- Negative self-image, such as caused by social shaming
- Change of neighborhood, school, house, or friend circle
- Traumatic life incidents, such as domestic violence, child abuse, death, or separation
- Financial issues at home
- Exposure to violent behavior through television or other forms of media
- Sleep disturbances due to chronic illnesses
- Chronic illness of parents or their alcohol/ substance abuse
Effects Of Stress On Children
Some stress is vital for humans to develop and evolve. Under stress, the body releases chemicals, such as adrenaline and cortisol, which push an individual to work harder. However, when stress becomes chronic and toxic, it could lead to the following effects (4).
- The hypothalamic-pituitary and adrenal hormone axis (HPA) activates. It causes a surge in stress hormones, such as cortisol. High cortisol in the blood causes inflammation and altered immunity, affecting long-term health.
- Altered brain functions and gene expression, leading to physical, emotional, learning, behavioral, and mental health issues. These issues affect the child’s academic performance and impact the overall life quality.
As a consequence of these changes, a child feels more anxious, lonely, isolated, and depressed over time, impacting their overall growth and development. Therefore, parents need to be proactive in understanding and supporting their children to cope with stress.
Tips To Help Children Cope With Stress
Befriend your child and adopt an approach of patience, empathy, and discernment. It will motivate them to trust you and open-up or confide, albeit gradually. Here are some simple tips that will help you along (5) (6).
- Create a pleasant environment at home. To do this, keep your house neat, clean, and organized. Set a routine and help your child adhere to it. You and your child can wake up together and do yoga at home or go for a stroll in a nearby park. You can also plan movie nights, family night outs, and family playdates to reduce anxiety and strain caused by day-to-day hassles.
- Focus on spending quality time regularly. During this time, talk to your child as a friend and discuss their daily life and the challenges or stresses they face. Motivate them to open up to you and if they feel too hesitant, consider consulting an expert. Meanwhile, keep reassuring them that you have their back.
- Offer patient guidance and constant support. At times, your child’s behavior might upset you. You may feel overwhelmed and might reach the brink of losing cool, but be patient. Understand that your child’s behavioral changes are an indication of an underlying issue. You can resolve it only when you patiently teach your child ways to understand and accept stress and cope with it positively.
- Stop being judgemental. There may be situations that you don’t find stressful or worrisome, but your child may do. Understand them and empathize. Be in their shoes and make them believe that you understand what they are going through and that you are there to help them. Refrain from passing any comments that may hurt your child’s self-esteem or make them feel unheard or misunderstood.
- Help them build positive coping skills. You can do this by helping your child understand how different situations cause different amounts of stress and ways to manage it. Set the right example by staying calm, composed, and positive in the toughest of conditions. Show them how the perception of a situation or circumstance in a positive way can empower oneself with constructive coping.
- Navigate their thoughts towards positivity. To do this, indulge them in activities that can divert their mind and enhance positivity. For instance, when children feel stressed, you can suggest that they listen to their favorite music and dance their hearts out. Alternatively, older children can learn meditation or some other recreational activities, such as pottery or playing an instrument, providing them an outlet to let out their feelings and emotions.
- Let them exercise control. It is necessary for children since they will have to deal with their problems eventually. When your child faces a stressful situation, let them act independently, and you monitor them from a distance. Your presence should be like an anchor guiding the child to stay positive, rational, and constructive, but not dependant on you emotionally.
- Teach self-care habits. Encourage children to eat a well-balanced diet and stay physically active. Hiking, gyming, yoga, and swimming are different physical activities that a child can indulge in to boost mental and physical strength. Show them the importance of pampering oneself and taking out some “me time” by involving them in a few activities you do for self-care and fighting stress.
- Practice positive reinforcement. A child under stress may behave erratically, but it is you who has to act responsibly. Indeed you have to teach your child to be disciplined and positive reinforcement techniques that boost their self-esteem. These techniques should act as boosters that help children understand their mistakes without ridiculing them.
- Praise and reward their efforts. It will improve a child’s morale and make them feel appreciated. You can do so by discussing how well your child faced a stressful situation during a family dinner. Alternatively, you can give some privileges, such as allowing your child to stay awake an extra hour after bedtime and play with them.
Stress in children is common, but their response to it may vary. Children may feel stressed due to academic or other expectations, peer pressure, domestic violence, or a health issue. Sleep disturbances, restlessness, mood swings, and aggression may manifest stress. Spend quality time with children so that they can share their concerns with you. Avoid being judgemental and help them learn coping strategies that may boost their self-esteem. Appreciate their efforts and encourage them to take up stress-busting activities such as dance, yoga, or meditation. Also, help them develop a positive outlook to overcome the hurdles of life.
- Children may find it difficult to handle stressful situations themselves.
- Weakness, changed eating habits, bedwetting, fear, restlessness, mood swings may indicate stress in kids.
- Various factors such as negative self-image, traumatic incidents, or peer pressure may trigger stress responses in a child.
- Avoid being judgmental and try creating a pleasant environment at home to help your kid build positive stress-coping skills.
2. Helping Children Cope; CDC
3. Childhood Stress; Kids Health From Nemours
4. Toxic Stress: How the Body’s Response Can Harm a Child’s Development; Nationwide Children’s
5. Stress Management: Helping Your Child With Stress; C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital
6. Helping Children Handle Stress; AAP