Five Signs of Stress in Children and What We Can Do to Help
By: Dr. Diana Collins
When we think of stress, we think of it from an adult standpoint that may include work pressures and finances. Very rarely do we think of our children as being just as vulnerable to stress as we are. They are, however, though they may not be able to communicate it clearly.
Stress for our children may manifest in various ways, such as in unusual behaviors or in what we may think of as a “phase” triggered by a stressor or an event. It’s important to recognize some of these problems if they persist, in case they are signs of anxiety. It is also important to know how to navigate through them or recognize if our children need additional help.
Stress and anxiety are part of normal life. One in 10 children and adolescents suffers from anxiety disorders. There are three things to look at that can signal if anxiety is pointing in the direction of the abnormal and towards an anxiety disorder in a child’s life. The first is whether or not the anxiety or stress is interfering with the child’s ability to function in their everyday activities or leads to avoidance, such as missing school. The second is to determine the amount of distress being exerted by the stressor. This may vary for each stressor, and may be both subjective and objective. The third involves the duration of the stressor and whether the child is persistently worried or afraid of it.
Here are five signs of childhood stress we can look for and tips that will help our children reduce them:
One sign of childhood stress can be the sudden onset of bedwetting when there is no other medical cause for the condition. One way to address this issue is to look for the potential immediate sources of stress surrounding the development. If the problem persists, it’s best if we have a nonthreatening conversation with our child to talk about the problem and discover what may be bothering them.
Certain Key Words
Our children most likely will not come to us and say, “Wow, I’m stressed,” but they will probably use words that hint about their mental state. We should listen to their words and be aware of any language that suggests they are angry, worried, annoyed, or confused.
Chronic stress is associated with negative symptoms and can affect our child’s health and immune system. It is common for children who are stressed to complain, out of the blue, of physical symptoms, such as headaches, tummy aches, chest pains, anxiety, or fatigue. We must listen and pay attention to these complaints. Our family physician, pediatrician, or the school nurse may be able to help us sort out these symptoms and trace the source of their cause.
If our normally calm child starts acting out with anger, or their behavior changes around their peers, they may be facing a source of stress in their environment. Aggressive behavior is most often a sign that they are stressed. It’s important to let them know it’s normal to feel like lashing out when they are angry but that we understand they know hitting someone else isn’t the right thing to do. In general, children don’t like to be aggressive. The action often comes from a feeling of being overwhelmed. It is important for us not to lash out, either, when dealing with a child who is being aggressive. It is best to model the same behavior we expect from them and remain calm.
A change in our child’s sleep pattern can also be a sign of stress. For example, if they normally sleep soundly through the night and are suddenly knocking at our bedroom door at 1 a.m., they may be experiencing a source of stress.
Regular sleep patterns are important to a child’s mental state.
Recognizing these signs of stress can be helpful in order to intervene. If additional help is needed, a professional, such as a pediatrician, child/adolescent psychiatrist, or cognitive behavioral therapist can be consulted.
Methods to Help Our Children Be Stress Free
Be empowering parents. Ask our children what they want to do. Ask them prompting questions.
Show them the positives of being active. Do physical activities together. Ask them how they feel about it.
Use value induction. This involves explaining why we think a certain behavior is important, and not simply asserting the behavior.
Apply positive reinforcement. This involves telling them how well they are doing.
Make it look easy ourselves, like participating in a specific activity. This gives them confidence.
Help them envision the outcome. For example, have them think about going to a sporting event, imagine winning the event, and having the thrill of achieving the touchdown.
Help them face situations that make them afraid. Encourage them not to avoid those experiences that cause them stress by setting a positive example. This will give them confidence and heighten and improve their ability to extinguish anxiety and have a better long-term prognosis.
Coping with stress and anxiety is part of life, but it is important to know help is available. The first-line professionals available for help are pediatricians, school counselors, child and adolescent psychiatrists, and cognitive behavioral therapists. The most common treatments available for children and adolescents with anxiety disorders are cognitive behavior therapy and medication (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors). Each is equally effective. However, they are better together than on their own.
ABOUT DR. DIANA COLLINS M.D.
Dr. Diana Collins earned her medical degree at the University of Texas Health Science Center in 1992, finished her residency in General Psychiatry in 1995, and completed a Fellowship in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in 1997. She has been in private practice since 1997 and has had her own office in Sugar Land since 1999. Dr. Collins was voted as The Most Outstanding Psychiatrist in 2018 and 2019; received the Reader’s Choice Award of Fort Bend County by Living Magazine; and was a KNOWAutism Ambassador in 2019.