As we mature and grow older, we develop more and more coping mechanisms to deal with the challenges life brings. But what about children and stress? How can we tell they are feeling stressed, what can help them cope, and what can parents do to help?
Signs of stress in children and teens
Children and even teenagers do not always have the skills to verbalise their stress. How do we as parents know if they are going through something?
Stress affects all the systems in the body. This is as true for children and adults, so parents can be on the lookout for physiological signs. These include changes to eating and sleeping patterns, headaches, stomach aches, ongoing colds and flu, shortness of breath, and dizziness.
A study on stress in primary school illustrated the importance of school nurses and health educators in recognising stress in children. This is because stress symptoms in kids so often present as physical symptoms, from mild signs such as chills to more severe ones, like nausea and vomiting.
Responding to stress is part of a baby’s development. An article published by Harvard university points out that stress can be positive when the effects are brief (crying when the mother leaves the room). It can be tolerable when the more significant impact can be buffered by a supportive and nurturing environment (the mother leaves the room and a loving grandmother soothes the baby).
But stress can also be extremely toxic for a child, when the adversity experienced is strong, frequent or prolonged. (The mother leaves the baby screaming, hungry, and alone for an hour in an episode of neglect).
As a child grows, their ability to cope with adversity develops as well.
But the number of stressors they have to face also increase, as they go to school and have to navigate social relationships. Lack of connection, bullying and academic pressure can significantly increase stress in a child’s life.
On the other hand, the changes of childhood can also help your child cope.Friendships, positive relationships with educators, and self-esteem from academic achievement are all examples of this.
A review on toxic stress talks about the role of resilience (how someone can adapt to adversity despite the circumstances). And it found that children with resilience have strong relationships with their teachers.
Stress in adolescence
Adolescence is a time of human life when stress factors certainly increase. A study investigating adolescent stress points out that teens are facing physical and sexual changes, as well as social and academic pressure.
Teach them problem-solving skills, then let them make their own mistakes and find their own solutions so they can develop confidence.
3. Go green.
Spending time in nature is very important, especially for those who live in urban settings. A study found that children who have access to nature cope better with adversity than their peers who don’t. So if you live in a built up area, try to take family time outs in local parks, and consider working time in nature into family holidays.
Physical exercise, especially cardio, can lighten your mood, strengthen your immune system, and increase your feeling of overall well-being. According to NHS guidelines, young people between ages five to 18 should “aim for an average of at least 60 minutes of moderate or vigorous intensity physical activity a day across the week”.
Sometimes a child, like anyone, can feel worried about sharing their stress for fear of upsetting those they love. Even if you are their parent. So sometimes they, too, can benefit from a private and safe space to talk to someone who is unbiased, like a child counsellor. Note that kids can also do therapy over Skype these days, if for one reason or other getting in to a therapy office is too challenging.
Liz Szalai is a freelance writer and mum with a Master’s degree in psychology. She worked with children and young people for more than 15 years, including teaching students with learning difficulties. See more about her at @lizszalaiwriter.