As providers and caretakers, adults tend to view the world of children as happy
and carefree. After all, kids don't have jobs to keep or bills to pay, so what could
they possibly have to worry about?
Plenty! Even very young children have worries and feel stress to some degree.
Sources of Stress
Stress is a function of the demands placed on us and our ability to meet them.
These demands often come from outside sources, such as family, jobs, friends,
or school. But it also can come from within, often related to what we think we should
be doing versus what we're actually able to do.
So stress can affect anyone who feels overwhelmed — even kids. In preschoolers,
separation from parents can cause anxiety. As kids get older, academic and social
pressures (especially from trying to fit in) create stress.
Many kids are too busy to have time to play creatively
or relax after school. Kids who complain about all their activities or who refuse
to go to them might be overscheduled. Talk with your kids about how they feel about
extracurricular activities. If they complain, discuss the pros and cons of stopping
one activity. If stopping isn't an option, explore ways to help manage your child's
time and responsibilities to lessen the anxiety.
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? Parents should watch
how they discuss such issues when their kids are near because children will pick up
on their parents' anxieties and start to worry themselves.
World news can cause
stress. Kids who see disturbing images on TV or hear talk of natural disasters, war,
and terrorism may worry about their own safety and that of the people they love. Talk
to your kids about what they see and hear, and monitor what they watch on TV so that
you can help them understand what's going on.
Also, be aware of complicating factors, such as an illness, death of a loved one,
or a divorce. When these
are added to the everyday pressures kids face, the stress is magnified. Even the most
amicable divorce can be tough for kids because their basic security system —
their family — is undergoing a big change. Separated or divorced parents should
never put kids in a position of having to choose sides or expose them to negative
comments about the other spouse.
Also realize that some things that aren't a big deal to adults can cause significant
stress for kids. Let your kids know that you understand they're stressed and don't
dismiss their feelings as inappropriate.
Signs and Symptoms
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 children may pick up new habits
like thumb sucking, hair twirling, or nose picking; older kids may begin to lie, bully, or defy authority.
A child who is stressed also may overreact to minor problems, have nightmares,
become clingy, or have drastic changes in academic performance.
How can you help kids cope with stress? Proper rest and
good nutrition can boost coping skills, as can good parenting. Make time for your
kids each day. Whether they need to talk or just be in the same room with you, make
yourself available. Don't try to make them talk, even if you know what they're worried
about. Sometimes kids just feel better when you spend time with them on fun activities.
Even as kids get older, quality time is important. It's really hard for some people
to come home after work, get down on the floor, and play with their kids or just talk
to them about their day — especially if they've had a stressful day themselves.
But expressing interest shows your kids that they're important to you.
Help your child cope with stress by talking about what may be causing it. Together,
you can come up with a few solutions like cutting back on after-school activities,
spending more time talking with parents or teachers, developing an exercise regimen,
or keeping a journal.
You also can help by anticipating potentially stressful situations and preparing
kids for them. For example, let your son or daughter know ahead of time that a doctor's
appointment is coming up and talk about what will happen there. Tailor the information
to your child's age — younger kids won't need as much advance preparation or
details as older kids or teens.
Remember that some level of stress is normal; let your kids know that it's OK to
feel angry, scared, lonely, or anxious and that other people share those feelings.
Reassurance is important, so remind them that you're confident that they can
handle the situation.
Helping Your Child Cope
When kids can't or won't discuss their stressful issues, try talking about your
own. This shows that you're willing to tackle tough topics and are available to talk
with when they're ready. If a child shows symptoms that concern you and is unwilling
to talk, consult a therapist
or other mental health specialist.
Books can help young kids identify with characters in stressful situations and
learn how they cope. Check out Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good,
Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst; Tear Soup by Pat Schweibert, Chuck DeKlyen,
and Taylor Bills; and Dinosaurs Divorce by Marc Brown and Laurene Krasny
Most parents have the skills to deal with their child's stress. The time to seek
professional attention is when any change in behavior persists, when stress is causing
or when the behavior causes significant problems at school or at home.
If you need help finding resources for your child, consult your doctor or the counselors
and teachers at school.