What is stress?
A common feeling that affects children as much as adults, just differently.
We live in a time of increased stress in the world. Like adults, many children are struggling right now.
We’re going through many drastic shifts in the world, but there are many other things that can also lead to stress in children – negative situations at home, violence in schools or exams. Even positive changes like moving to a bigger house or making new friends.
As a parent, you can help your child through stressful times by looking out for signs of excess stress and supporting them in learning how to manage it.
What is stress?
Stress is a common feeling we get when we feel under pressure, overwhelmed or unable to cope. Small amounts of stress can be good for us and motivate us to achieve goals like taking an exam or giving a speech. But too much of it, especially when it feels out of control, can negatively impact our mood, physical and mental well-being and relationships.
What causes stress?
Children don’t always experience stress the way adults do. Whereas work-related stress is common among adults, most children experience stress when they cannot cope with threatening, difficult or painful situations. These include:
- Negative thoughts or feelings about themselves
- Changes in their bodies like the beginning of puberty
- The demands of school like exams and more homework as they get older
- Problems with friends at school and socializing
- Big changes like moving homes, changing schools or separation of parents
- Chronic illness, financial problems in the family or the death of a loved one
- Unsafe environments at home or in the neighbourhood.
Stress in children and adolescents
Stress can be triggered in children when they experience something new or unexpected.
For young children, tensions at home such as domestic abuse, separation of parents or the death of a loved one are common causes of stress. School is another common reason – making new friends or taking exams can make children feel overwhelmed.
As children grow older, their sources of stress can increase as they experience bigger life changes, such as new groups of friends, more schoolwork and increased access to social media and wider news in the world. Many teens are stressed by social issues such as climate change and discrimination.
It is important to remember that children are like ‘sponges’ and absorb what’s going on around them. They notice when their parents are stressed and may react to that emotional state, whatever it is.
Children and adolescents don’t always have the emotional intelligence or vocabulary to express themselves fully. While younger children may lack an understanding of what is truly happening because of their age and level of development. To them, a new or different situation just feels different, uncomfortable, unpredictable, even scary.
Signs and symptoms of stress in kids
When the body is under stress it produces hormones like adrenaline and cortisol that prepare us for urgent action – also known as the ‘fight or flight’ response. This can have many effects on a child’s mind and body, such as:
- Shallow breathing, sweating and a racing heart
- Headaches, dizziness and difficulty sleeping
- Nausea, indigestion or digestive problems
- Weight gain or loss from eating too much or too little
- Aches and pains and falling sick more often.
Emotional and mental
- Irritability and anger causing temper outbursts or withdrawing from family and friends
- Neglecting responsibilities, lower efficiency at tasks or having difficulty concentrating
- Emotional distress such as continuously feeling sad or being tearful.
These symptoms can often lead to more stress. It is important to help your child find ways to cope, so that they can deal with it as soon as it happens.
Ways to help your child cope
When children are feeling stressed, parents can play an important role in helping them find ways to cope.
Like adults, children sometimes need to be reminded to be kind to themselves.
- Spot the triggers: Help your child recognize and begin to track the times they felt stressed and look for patterns in how they reacted. What was happening at the time? What were they thinking, feeling or doing just before they felt stressed? Once they identify difficulties that are likely to make them feel stressed you can explore together ways to prevent stress or deal with it quickly.
- Respond with love: Give your child extra love, time and attention. Monitor if stress is affecting their health, behaviour, thoughts or feelings. Remember to listen to them, speak kindly and reassure them.
- Be a role model: Talk to your child about ways you have dealt with stressful situations. By sharing your own experiences, you can inspire your child to find stress-managing habits that work for them.
- Promote positive thinking: It’s easy for children, especially teenagers to start thinking poorly of themselves. If you hear statements like “I’m not good at anything”, “I don’t like myself” or “I’m scared to go out”, ask them what makes them feel this way and remind them of the times they accomplished something and how they did it. Positive reinforcement from you will make them feel understood and confident that they can overcome stressful situations.
- Support healthy habits: Sleep and eating well are key relievers of stress. Experts recommend 9 to 12 hours of sleep a night for 6- to 12-year-olds. Teens need 8 to 10 hours a night. To protect sleep, limit screen use at night and avoid keeping digital devices in the bedroom. The better nourished and rested your child is, the more they will be able to cope with stress.
Encourage your child to go outside, play and spend time with friends. Exercise and activities such as meditation and deep breathing are helpful in relieving stress.
Abdominal breathing is very calming and helps us to draw oxygen deep into our lungs. Here’s an easy 3-step process: Place your hand on your stomach. Take 5 deep breaths, spend 5 seconds breathing in and 5 seconds breathing out, breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth. Explain that when your child inhales, they are blowing up their tummy softly like a balloon, and when they exhale the air is going slowly out of the balloon again.
Like adults, children sometimes need to be reminded to be kind to themselves. Stress is a human experience that with time and using a few simple techniques, can be overcome.
When to seek professional help
If your child is finding it difficult to cope, consider meeting with a trained expert who can help. Talk to your family doctor or a counsellor for advice. They should be able to advise you on available treatment, such as time with a psychologist who helps people to manage stress and establish positive mental health habits.
Don’t be afraid to seek professional help for your child. If stress is affecting your child’s life, then it is important they get help as soon as possible so they can start to feel better.