As providers and caretakers, adults tend to view the world of
children as happy and carefree. After all, kids don't have jobs
to keep or bills to pay, so what could they possibly have to worry
Plenty! Even very young children have worries and feel stress to
some degree. Stress is a function of the demands placed on us and
our ability to meet them.
Sources of Stress
Pressures often come from outside sources (such as family,
friends, or school), but they can also come from within. The
pressure we place on ourselves can be most significant because
there is often a discrepancy between what we think we ought to be
doing and what we are actually doing in our lives.
Stress can affect anyone who feels overwhelmed - even kids. In
preschoolers, separation from parents can cause anxiety. As kids
get older, academic and social pressures (especially the quest to
fit in) create stress.
Many kids are too busy to have time to play creatively or relax
after school. Kids who complain about the number of activities
they're involved in or refuse to go to them may be signaling
that they're overscheduled.
Talk with your kids about how they feel about
extracurricular activities. If they complain, discuss the pros and
cons of quitting one activity. If quitting isn't an option,
explore ways to help manage your child's time and
responsibilities so that they don't create so much anxiety.
Kids' stress may be intensified by more than just what's
happening in their own lives. Do your kids hear you talking about
troubles at work, worrying about a relative's illness, or
fighting with your spouse about financial matters? Parents should
watch how they discuss such issues when their kids are near because
children will pick up on their parents' anxieties and start to
World news can cause stress. Kids who see disturbing images
on TV or hear talk of natural disasters, war, and terrorism
may worry about their own safety and that of the people they love.
Talk to your kids about what they see and hear, and monitor
what they watch on TV so that you can help them understand
what's going on.
Also, be aware of complicating factors, such as an illness,
death of a loved one, or a divorce. When these are added to the
everyday pressures kids face, the stress is magnified. Even the
most amicable divorce can be a difficult experience for kids
because their basic security system - their family - is undergoing
a tough change. Separated or divorced parents should never put kids
in a position of having to choose sides or expose them to negative
comments about the other spouse.
Signs and Symptoms
While it's not always easy to recognize when kids
are stressed out, short-term behavioral changes - such as mood
swings, acting out, changes in sleep patterns, or bedwetting
- can be indications. Some kids experience physical effects,
including stomachaches and headaches. Others have trouble
concentrating or completing schoolwork. Still others become
withdrawn or spend a lot of time alone.
Younger children may show signs of reacting to stress by picking
like thumb sucking, hair twirling, or nose picking; older kids may
begin to lie, bully, or defy authority. A child who is stressed may
also have nightmares, difficulty leaving you, overreactions to
minor problems, and drastic changes in academic performance.
How can you help kids cope with stress? Proper rest and good
nutrition can boost coping skills, as can good parenting. Make time
for your kids each day. Whether they need to talk or just be in the
same room with you, make yourself available.
Even as kids get older, quality time is important. It's
really hard for some people to come home after work, get down on
the floor, and play with their kids or just talk to them about
their day - especially if they've had a stressful day
themselves. But expressing interest in your kids' days
shows that they're important to you.
Help your child cope with stress by talking about what may be
causing it. Together, you can come up with a few solutions like
cutting back on after-school activities, spending more time talking
with parents or teachers, developing an exercise regimen, or
keeping a journal.
You can also help by anticipating potentially stressful
situations and preparing kids for them. For example, let a child
know ahead of time (but not too far ahead of time) that a
doctor's appointment is coming up and talk about what will
happen there. Keep in mind, though, that younger kids probably
won't need too much advance preparation. Too much information
can cause more stress - reassurance is the key.
Remember that some level of stress is normal; let kids know that
it's OK to feel angry, scared, lonely, or anxious and that
other people share those feelings.
Helping Your Child Cope
When kids can't or won't discuss these issues, try
talking about your own concerns. This shows that you're willing
to tackle tough topics and are available to talk with
when they're ready. If a child shows symptoms that concern you
and is unwilling to talk, consult a counselor or other mental
Books can help young kids identify with characters in stressful
situations and learn how they cope. Check out
Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad
by Judith Viorst;
by Pat Schweibert, Chuck DeKlyen, and Taylor Bills; and
by Marc Brown and Laurene Krasny Brown.
Most parents have the skills to deal with their child's
stress. The time to seek professional attention is when any change
in behavior persists, when stress is causing serious anxiety, or
when the behavior is causing significant problems in functioning at
school or at home.
If you need help finding resources for your child,
consult your doctor or the counselors and teachers at
Jennifer Shroff Pendley, PhD
Date reviewed: December 2008
Originally reviewed by:
David V. Sheslow, PhD, and Meredith Lutz Stehl, PhD
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice,
diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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