You might be all too familiar with the sources and symptoms of stress, but do you know the effect that stress has on children? Although stress is a normal reaction to the circumstances of life, multiple and/or extreme stressors (things that provoke stress) put children’s physical and mental health at risk.
In recent studies, chronic stress and multiple stressors in children have been linked to physical and mental health disorders and learning disabilities. Therefore, parents’ ability to identify and help their children cope with stress may greatly impact their children’s health and education.
Though they are young, children’s lives can be stressful. Children experience stress when faced with internal struggles, such as wanting to achieve academically or worrying about a parent’s drug abuse. Grief and loss issues also cause children stress, such as the death of a loved one or losing a family member through divorce or imprisonment. Environmental issues create stress in children, too.
Crime and poverty can cause children to live in a continual state of stress. In addition, similar to adults, a demanding schedule may add to stress on a child. For example, participating in extra-curricular activities, babysitting, and completing household chores on a school night may fill a child’s plate, making it difficult for them to believe and feel they can handle it all. If your child is experiencing several of the stressors above, he or she may be susceptible to some of the stress-related symptoms below.
In children, stress manifests itself in different ways. Some children may react to life stressors by clinging to their parents, becoming easily irritated, having mood swings, and experiencing physical symptoms, such as headaches and stomach aches. Others may withdraw from interactions with family members and friends, lash out unexpectedly, have difficulty sleeping or waking up, and/or experience changes in eating. Because these symptoms may also be caused by other issues, it is important to talk with your child frequently so he or she feels comfortable sharing their stressors with you. Even if your child is not forthcoming with information, observing your child’s schedule and behavior will provide you with more insight on whether your child is being negatively impacted by stress.
Stress can either motivate children or hinder them. What motivates is “good stress,” and it causes children to work harder or study more, like when they experience stress while practicing for a presentation or studying for a test. “Bad stress” negatively impacts children and causes them to feel overwhelmed and unfocused, to the point where they can’t work or study effectively.
That said, parents can’t expect to eliminate stress from their children’s lives. They should instead help them learn to decrease the stress that produces negative symptoms. One way to do this is by teach them how to take their bodies to a relaxed state, which may mean giving them more time to relax. You may increase your children’s time for relaxation by implementing an early bed time, so they can sleep for another hour or so.
Planning daily activities that cause relaxation may help as well, such as taking a yoga class, listening to soothing music, or petting a puppy. Another way to help your children reduce stress is by “rehearsing” the event that stresses them. If your child fears giving a class speech, have him present the speech to you, then to a group of family members, then to a group of friends. Once your child sees himself successfully carrying out the “stressful” experience, he can apply that confidence to the more anxiety-provoking situation of giving a speech in class.
Last, but not least, if your family is faith-filled, encourage your child to release their stress spiritually through prayer, reading positive messages, and meditation. Such practices have helped many individuals battle the stress of oppression, war, and addiction for years.
As you monitor your own stress level, be sure to notice how stress is affecting your children as well. Use the suggestions above to help them better handle the various events in their lives.