Yesterday, your child seemed to be perfectly okay. Today, you can tell something is wrong. When you really think about it, you realize it has been days since something changed. He seems withdrawn, teary, scared of invisible dangers lurking around the corner, and this behavior leaves you somewhat baffled.
Uncharacteristic or “bizarre” behaviors are common markers of stress in children. These can range from changes in eating habits to emotional symptoms such as anxiety and worry. But stress is not all bad. In small doses, it can help your child develop specific skills to deal with new, difficult or even frightening situations. That said, when he experiences too much stress, or experiences stress over relatively prolonged periods, then that stress can have a negative impact on his physical and psychological wellbeing.
Researchers suggest that stress in children can be characterized using three distinct types of stress: positive, tolerable or toxic.
Positive stress is good stress. It helps your child acquire new skills to deal effectively with difficult situations. This stress often arises from brief situations that are not too intense. For instance, you child may be stressed about changing teachers or classes or starting a new activity.
When a child is encountering positive stress, being caring and supportive is often enough to help her better cope with the stressful event. Also, going over possible coping mechanisms can make it easier for her to deal with stressful situations. For example, if she is stressed about starting a new activity, organizing a meeting with the facilitator or even simply talking about what she should expect can help her better deal with such situations.
Tolerable stress arises from more intense experiences, but these experiences are often short-lived. For example, this stress may arise after a separation or death. Tolerable stress can be overcome over time, but only if your child receives appropriate support. If not, this stress can be transformed into toxic stress.
Toxic stress is often the result of intense and lasting difficult experiences for your child. This stress is often caused by events that may have been going on for relatively long periods, sometimes for years. If your child is unable to get the help required, this stress can lead to a permanent negative impact on his social, physical and psychological health. Some studies have found that it can also permanently affect his brain development. For instance, one study found that children experiencing excessive stress had a smaller brain size.
If your child is experiencing stress, you may wonder where that stress is coming from. The available research suggests that children’s stress originates from relatively similar sources.
Understanding why your child is stressed
A wide variety of reasons may explain your child’s stress:
- Your child may be stressed because she is tired, hungry, or ill
- Family changes are a common source of stress for children. Your child may be stressed by frequent disputes between you and your partner, divorce/separation, death or serious illness of a family member, and so on.
- Your son may be genetically prone to stress. For example, kids who are shy and hypersensitive may be more likely to stress about issues other kids would generally ignore
- Your daughter may be stressed about her school performance (grades, inability to read as well as the other kids in her class, feelings of being less intelligent than her classmates, etc.)
- If your son has a negative image of himself, this can lead to stress especially because he may believe that others view him negatively
- Having too many activities (academic and extra-curricular) can be a source of stress for some children
- Family financial pressures may increase childhood stress
- Changes in one’s normal routine is a common source of stress for many children. Your son may be stressed about changing schools, changing teachers, starting a new activity, moving to a new neighborhood, and so on.
- Peer pressure and problems with friends is also likely to be a source of stress. This may include issues such as teasing and bullying.
- Negative discipline techniques can increase your child’s stress. For instance, there is proof that constant yelling or punitive discipline measures can increase your child’s stress levels
- Adverse experiences including neglect, sexual abuse or discrimination are also a common source of stress
The thing with stress in childhood is that different children react to it in different ways. So, what are the most common markers of stress in young children?
The signs and symptoms of stress in children
Signs and symptoms of stress in children can be behavioral, physical, psychological and even social.
a) Behavioral signs of stress in children
- Aggressive behavior – stress can manifest itself in aggressive acts (hitting, biting, frequent fights) or verbal attacks
- Disobedient behavior
- The emergence of stress-related behavior – for instance, your child may start bed-wetting, body rocking, biting his nails, or you may see a change in his eating and sleeping habits
- Regressive behavior – a stressed child could begin habits that she had otherwise stopped. For instance, she may begin to wet her bed even if she had stopped this behavior months or even years earlier
- Headaches, a racing heart, tummy aches (constipation/diarrhea) and cold hands are also common symptoms of stress in children
- Dry, itchy, red and cracked skin can also be a physical manifestation of stress in your child. Mild or more severe forms of eczema is one of the signs of stress in children.
- Frequent illness
b) Psychological symptoms of stress in your child
- a stressed child is likely to lack enthusiasm even for activities she normally enjoys
- if your son is suffering from stress, he may appear more fearful and anxious and avoid trying new experiences
- mood swings are a common symptom of stress in a child. For example, a stressed child can appear irritable
- children who are stressed often act out. Your stressed child may have more frequent and more intense meltdowns
- your stressed daughter may begin to have more nightmares
c) Social signs of stress in young kids
- A stressed child is likely to withdraw from others and to prefer spending time alone. For example, if you son is experiencing stress, he may spend a lot of time lying alone on his bed
- A stressed child is likely to suffer from loneliness because his withdrawn behavior may keep him from making friends
The good news is that with your care and support, you can often help your child better deal with stress.
Easy tips to help your child manage stress
- Teach your child that stress is normal
Everyone experiences stress at some point in their lives. Helping your child understand that stress is normal, and that everyone has moments when certain situations seem daunting, can help her better deal with stress. This can include talking to her about moments when you were stressed yourself or things that cause you stress and, especially, talking about how you manage stressful moments. Your child looks up to you so model positive ways of dealing with stress.
Avoid focusing on your child’s stress. It is important to keep calm to show your child that there is no need for worry. The more you focus on her stress-related behavior, the more stressed she is likely to become, and the more you are likely to reinforce that behavior. Hold her when you feel she needs it, but do not make a fuss over her behavior. Remember that stress-related behavior can quickly turn into attention-seeking behavior and prevent your child from learning to deal with stressful situations.
2) Let your child know that he is safe
A child who knows that he is safe and secure is more likely to better deal with stress. Let your child know that you understand his feelings and that you are there for him.
3) Show your child that she is capable of success
Children who meet with success in different areas of life are more likely to deal more effectively with stress-provoking situations. Encouraging your child to make decisions that concern her is an easy way to show her that she is capable of dealing with different kinds of situations. Encouraging her to participate in age-appropriate chores is also an easy way to help develop important skills such as self-reliance and autonomy. A child who feels capable of handling different types of situations is also more likely to respond to stress more appropriately.
4) Strengthening your child’s feelings of self-worth can help him better manage stress
The words you use to describe your child can help build his sense of self-worth and improve his ability to deal with difficult stress-provoking situations. Below is a FREE DOWNLOAD of positive words every kid needs to hear.
5) Prepare your child for change
If your child is prone to stress, talking to her about upcoming changes can make it easier for her to deal with them. For example, if she is changing schools, find out whether she can visit the school or meet with her future teacher beforehand. If she is stressed about starting swimming lessons, meet the instructor and have him or her explain how the lessons will be organized.
6) Try positive reinforcement strategies
Positive reinforcement is not just about discipline. It is also a great way to help your child learn to deal with difficult stress-provoking situations by herself. It is an effective strategy that can help you modify specific behavior in your child.
This strategy involves focusing on your child’s positive behavior and limiting attention to negative behavior. In dealing with stress, this could involve, for instance, determining appropriate ways to respond to stress (color a mandala, jump on the trampoline, talk to someone, and so on), then reinforcing those behaviors every time they occur.
However, positive reinforcement is not designed to be a “long-term” solution to challenging behavior. Although there is no doubt that it works, it can only work if it is implemented the right way. If you are interested in trying out this strategy, the positive behavior kit can walk you through the process to successfully implement positive reinforcement.
7) Help your child put her emotions into words
It is difficult to tackle invisible monsters. When you know what is causing your child’s stress, it is easier to help him overcome that stress. Some children are able to name whatever it is that is causing them stress, others are not.
Listen to your child more attentively. Observing his behavior at specific moments of the day – or on specific days – can help you identify the source of stress. For instance, if he displays more stress-related behavior on the days he has multiple activities, his behavior may be explained by fatigue; if your child is always stressed on the days he has a specific activity, then his behavior may be linked to that activity. Pay attention to what your child is watching. Violent or age-inappropriate content can also provoke stress.
8) Strengthen your child’s emotion regulation skills
Emotion regulation refers to your child’s ability to understand her emotions and deal with them in a socially appropriate manner. Emotionally-intelligent children are more able to express their emotions appropriately, display lower levels of impulsivity, ask for help when they need it, and so on.
Strengthening your child’s emotional intelligence means paying attention to her emotions and assuming that she understands and benefits when you talk to her about feelings and emotions.
All signs point to the increasing importance of nurturing your child’s emotional intelligence. Fostering your child’s emotional intelligence is relevant for her social, academic, and psychological wellbeing.
9) Help your kid deal with stress alone
Emotional intelligence is not just about understanding one’s emotions and what triggers those emotions. It is also, and above all, helping your child learn to deal with stressful situations alone. Although this is often a long process that requires much patience, your child can progressively learn to identify the tools that work to help him deal with stress and even difficult emotions such as anxiety by himself. The Emotions Kit is an extensive collection of resources to give your child the tools to help him better deal with difficult emotion-provoking situations.
When your child shows stress-related behavior “for no reason”
It is not uncommon for children to appear to be stressed but to be unable to identify their stressors. Sometimes, even parents themselves are unable to identify stress factors in their children’s environment. What you must not forget is that even factors such as fatigue and insufficient sleep can lead to stress in young children.
Even when you are unable to pinpoint the sources of your child’s stress, remember that it is important for her to feel safe. Hold her, talk to her, read to her, find more time to spend together – even little pieces of time count.
Family routines are especially helpful for young and older children alike. Having meals together or organizing family movie nights are a great way to help you child better manage stress. Physical activities are also great stress busters for kids.
Scheduling some time to spend with your child every day can go a long way in reducing his stress. Below is a FREE 30-DAY CHALLENGE packed with simple 10-20 minute bonding activities your entire family will enjoy
When should you seek help for your child’s stress?
Please seek help if:
- your child’s stress-related behavior persists despite all your attempts
- you feel unable to help her overcome stress
- your child is becoming more withdrawn over time
- your child is displaying serious behavior problems at school and at home
- she seems unable to control herself
The Effects of Childhood Stress on Health Across the Lifespan
“Excessive Stress Disrupts the Architecture of the Developing Brain: Working Paper 3”
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