When you’re stressed, you may reminisce about the care-free days of childhood. Everything was much simpler then, right? Actually, maybe not. Though we may not remember all the challenges we faced while growing up, or now consider such fears silly, at the time, these issues may have had a significant impact on our lives. Stress can impact anyone at any age. Separation from parents can cause preschoolers anxiety. As we get older, academic and social pressures can lead to stress. Kids are also particularly attuned to the stress of parents. If the news, work pressures, or general feelings of overwhelm have you frazzled, kids may pick up on and also experience these feelings.
Because our ability to name feelings develops with age, young children are not able to communicate when they are stressed. Instead, parents must be attuned to physical and emotional clues that can be indicators.
The U.S. Library of Medicine lists the following signs of childhood stress:
- Anxiety, worry
- Not able to relax
- New or recurring fears (fear of the dark, fear of being alone, fear of strangers)
- Clinging, unwilling to let you out of sight
- Anger, crying, whining
- Not able to control emotions
- Aggressive or stubborn behavior
- Going back to behaviors present when a younger age
- Doesn’t want to participate in family or school activities
- Decreased appetite, other changes in eating habits
- New or recurrent bedwetting
- Sleep disturbances
- Upset stomach or vague stomach pain
- Other physical symptoms with no physical illness
The next step is to help your child understand and manage whatever is arising for them. Consider the following tips from KidsHealth.org to help your child identify and manage stress.
Notice out loud. Tell your child when you notice that something’s bothering him or her. If you can, name the feeling you think your child is experiencing.
Listen to your child. Ask your child to tell you what’s wrong. Listen attentively and calmly — with interest, patience, openness, and caring.
Comment briefly on the feelings you think your child was experiencing. For example, you might say “That must have been upsetting,” “No wonder you felt mad when they wouldn’t let you in the game,” or “That must have seemed unfair to you.”
Put a label on it. Many younger kids do not yet have words for their feelings. If your child seems angry or frustrated, use those words to help him or her learn to identify the emotions by name.
Help your child think of things to do. If there’s a specific problem that’s causing stress, talk together about what to do.
Listen and move on. Sometimes talking and listening and feeling understood is all that’s needed to help a child’s frustrations begin to melt away.
Just be there. Kids don’t always feel like talking about what’s bothering them. Sometimes that’s OK. Let your kids know you’ll be there when they do feel like talking. Even when kids don’t want to talk, they usually don’t want parents to leave them alone.
Be patient. As a parent, it hurts to see your child unhappy or stressed. But try to resist the urge to fix every problem. Instead, focus on helping your child, slowly but surely, grow into a good problem solver.
The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests reaching out to a professional if your child:
- Is becoming withdrawn, more unhappy or depressed
- Is having problems in school or interacting with friends or family
- Is unable to control his or her behavior or anger
- Offering these techniques early can set children up to know how to healthily deal with stress in adulthood.
Offering these techniques and resources early on can set children up to learn how to healthily deal with stress in adulthood.