There’s a lot of talk these days about stress and how it affects our health. If you’re a parent, you probably experience stress at certain times in your life: When you’ve been overworked, sleep deprived, or worried about the bills. But what about children? Do kids experience stress?
Stress can affect children of all ages. Often parents do not recognize stress in a child’s life because events may not seem stressful to an adult in the same way. If unaddressed, however, childhood stress can lead to anxiety and may cause bigger physical and mental health issues in the future. As parents and caregivers, we can help to identify stress affecting our children and teach them how to cope with it.
Of course, this doesn’t mean we can remove all stress from our children’s lives. Nor should we, because manageable stress is a positive motivating force for a child (i.e., the stress imposed by a teacher helps for doing well in school, or making and sustaining friendships). Handling acceptable levels of stress can teach your child how to manage normal adulthood that usually comes with certain unavoidable stressors, such as the kind that comes with jobs, family, and financial pressures. And stress that is continuous and intense is something we should help children avoid.
What to Watch Out For
Many parents may feel that their children are resilient and adapt to changes fairly well. This may be true for a lot of kids. But there are times when stress, big or small, can take a toll. Most children haven’t yet learned what to do with stress, so changes can have an impact on them.
How can you tell when it’s time to help a child handle stress? Here are some signs and symptoms to look for:
Changes in sleep (e.g., nightmares, fear of the dark)
Decrease in appetite (e.g., loss of interest in food)
Irritability (e.g., anxiety, worries, inability to relax)
Unwillingness to participate in school
Fear of strangers
You know your child better than anyone. If you notice changes in their behavior, such as mood swings, bedwetting, or acting out, it is important to recognize them and make time for your child each day. It is also important to help your child cope by talking about what may be causing their stress. Let your kids know it’s ok to share those feelings.
What You Can Do
Spending quality time with your children can help them when they are feeling stressed. There are a number of things that parents can also do:
Provide a home that is as safe, familiar, and dependable as possible
Allow your child opportunities to make choices and have control, within reason
Avoid TV programs or movies that may be too scary for younger children
Encourage your child to express his or her feelings and ask questions
Listen to your child
Give plenty of advanced notice if anything is going to change (e.g., family life, job, home, school)
Be patient with your child. Your reassurance about the situation can help your child deal with stress and anxiety. If things do not improve, be sure to talk to your pediatrician—he or she can work with you to find any additional resources you may need.
Alison Mitzner, MD is the Senior Director, Medical Oversight Lead, Safety Evaluation and Reporting Worldwide Safety & Regulatory Operations