When we’re dealing with too much pressure at work or in our personal lives, we sometimes wish to go back to being children, when we were carefree and lived stress-free days. But we take for granted the fact that being a kid isn’t always easy and even kids experience stress, just not in the ways we’ve gotten used to.
Stress in Children’s Life
Stress is a natural reaction to a situation that activates the human fight or flight response. It served our ancestors well as it helped them deal with dangerous situations, like predators hunting them down. Modern-day situations—demands placed on us, whether by outside sources or our own internal dialogue—trigger similar reactions in our bodies. While this can allow us to perform well (e.g., nervousness fuels us right before a big work presentation), chronic stress can leave us feeling overwhelmed and can have detrimental effects on health.
Sure, kids don’t have to worry about paying the bills or don’t experience big fights with their spouses but there may be things going on in their lives that are very stressful for them. Academic and social pressure to fit in, as well as major events such as parents separating or the death of a loved one are obvious triggers. But there are also other sources of stress in children that you may be overlooking:
Separation anxiety. Younger kids may feel really anxious when they get separated from their parents or primary caregivers. Perhaps mom is starting a new job after staying home with the kids for a couple of years or dad is going abroad for a week. Or maybe their yaya is resigning. Young kids may not understand that mommy and daddy will come back, or may struggle with not being with the nanny they’ve known since birth.
Overscheduling. Parents have the best intentions when they put their kids in many extracurricular activities, wanting them to grow up well-rounded and giving them the tools to help them succeed as they grow older. But kids also need time to relax, play, and just be kids. If you’ve noticed that your kids have been complaining about the many activities on their plate (sports, arts, music, etc.), then maybe it’s time to have a discussion about which ones they can and would like to stop.
A change in their routine. Routine is important in children’s lives. Knowing what to expect gives them a sense of security and comfort so anything that disrupts this can stress them out. Moving to a new house, going to a new school, or the arrival of a new baby are some of the changes that children may have difficulty coping with.
Other people’s problems. Overhearing you and your spouse fight, lash out about something at work, or worry about such things like money or health can increase children’s anxiety.
The news. Likewise, seeing disasters on TV or hearing catastrophic news can trigger their anxiety and get them worried about their safety and yours.
Recognizing the Signs
Some kids may be too young to verbalize how they’re feeling while others may simply refuse to talk about it. It is thus important to recognize when your child is exhibiting signs of stress. Keep an eye out for the following:
Changes in behavior. The American Psychological Association (APA) lists some of the common changes: “acting irritably or moody, withdrawing from activities that used to give them pleasure, routinely expressing worries, complaining more than usual about school, crying, displaying surprising fearful reactions, clinging to a parent or teacher, sleeping too much or too little, or eating too much or too little.” The APA also states that, while it’s normal for teens to spend more time with their peers, parents should be concerned when teens seem to be withdrawing from family or are being hostile towards them, or when they abandon long-time friends for new ones.
In younger kids, physical changes like bedwetting and thumb-sucking may be telltale signs. (If the bedwetting becomes frequent, consult with your child’s doctor to rule out any physical problems.) Increased aggression that manifests in biting, kicking, and name-calling or increased hyperactive behavior may also be signs that something’s up.
Psychosomatic symptoms. If your child has been taking too many trips to the infirmary or is constantly complaining of tummy aches and headaches, then it may be a sign of stress.
Trouble focusing. Take note if your child is having a hard time staying focused on schoolwork or completing assignments.
Nightmares. Children’s stress may come out in their dreams. The nightmares they’ve been having may have a common theme that may point to the cause of stress.
Sometimes, any changes or symptoms may not be noticeable to parents, especially if kids spend more time in school than at home. Stay in touch with teachers, coaches, and fellow parents to learn if your child is behaving any differently outside of home.
What You Can Do
No parent wants to see their child suffering from stress but how can parents reduce stress in children’s lives? You may be tempted to call the experts right away but if the situation isn’t very alarming, you are well equipped to deal with it.
Keep them healthy. Make sure your children are getting enough sleep and proper nutrition as these can help them better manage stress. They should be getting the right nutrients from a well-balanced diet of whole foods. If a child doesn’t have a healthy appetite, talk to your doctor about supplements to ensure that they’re getting their vitamins and minerals.
Keep communication lines open. Some kids may not be open to talking about what they’re going through. Don’t force them to talk as this may cause them to withdraw further. Instead, foster an environment wherein they feel it’s safe to approach you. Don’t dismiss what they’re going through and instead share your own experiences with stress (in age-appropriate language) and how you deal with it. For younger kids, you can look for storybooks that touch on children dealing with similar stressful situations.
Maintain a healthy home environment. Routine is key so try to have a meal together as a family each day, whether it’s breakfast before everyone goes off to school and work, or dinner when everybody is home. Even if you don’t talk about what’s going on, spending time with you may help alleviate their anxiety.
Watch what they watch. Be mindful about the kind of shows that your children are exposed to.
Build their confidence. Give your children encouragement and support, and allow them to make choices for themselves to increase their confidence and help them see that they’re capable of overcoming hardships.
Work with them to come up with solutions. If you are able to pinpoint the source of stress then figure out solutions to address it. If children are feeling overscheduled, for example, determine which activities can be given up. You can also introduce coping mechanisms like deep breathing and writing in a journal.
If none of your interventions work and your child’s stress is a real cause for concern, consult with your physician. Don’t dismiss stress in children as unimportant—after all, we’re only children once. Kids should have pleasant memories of their childhood, and grow up well-adjusted and well-equipped to handle the stress that comes with adult life.