Stress is a natural emotional experience in life. We categorize stress as something occurring in response to an adverse event, such as a test or a big deadline. But stress also comes from positive life events, such as going to university or before a long-anticipated vacation. Parents are tasked with helping their children learn how to cope with and healthily manage stress, preparing them to navigate one of life's most challenging emotions successfully.
How parents view and approach stress will strongly impact how their children will cope with stress in their own lives. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines stress as "a state of worry or mental tension caused by a difficult situation. Stress is a natural human response that prompts us to address challenges and threats." Children and teens experience stress when faced with a challenge, change, or threat like adults. This event might include a big exam or a family crisis they do not understand.
Stress is not always a negative. All change, even positive change, can result in feeling stressed. Stress prompts us to get ready for change. Too much pressure, however, or poor ability to manage these emotions can have adverse effects on a child's physical and mental health.
Consequently, parents can not protect or shield children from stress. This preservation would limit valuable learning opportunities to develop healthy coping skills for one of life's most common emotions. Instead, parents must learn their child's physical and emotional signs of stress, create opportunities and methods to communicate with them about stress and know when more help is needed. Attention to emotional or behavioral cues is crucial for recognizing that a child may be struggling to manage the stress they are experiencing.
Physical Signs of Stress in Children
Similar to the effects of stress in adults, children will exhibit physical symptoms when feeling overwhelmed. A child may complain of stomach aches and headaches. Or make frequent trips to the school nurse. When a GP determines these health symptoms to have no medical basis, they are likely to be a physical manifestation of stress. Pay attention to patterns should your child experience frequent physical health complaints. Do they occur around specific events, such as an important examination?
Monitor for Changes in Behaviour
Children will find it hard to both identify when they are feeling overwhelmed and be able to talk about it. Stress can manifest itself in shifts in behaviour. Look for signs like mood changes, becoming more irritable or withdrawn from people and activities they used to enjoy. Younger children may become more tearful, fearful of things they previously did not fear, or clingy to a parent or teacher. Older children and teens may avoid peer groups or begin spending time with a different peer group. In addition, they may become more hostile or avoidant of parents. There may also be a decline in academic performance and withdrawal from sports and extracurricular activities. While many things may cause a behaviour change, parents must pay attention to these shifts and determine an appropriate response or intervention.
Stress vs. Anxiety
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 9.4% or 5.8 million children in the United States experience clinical anxiety. The prevalence of stress in children is much more challenging to measure. According to recent research reported by the American Psychological Association, teens identified stress levels far exceeded what they believe to be healthy. Many of these teenagers express being overwhelmed or feelings of depression as a result of this stress. While stress and anxiety are related, it's essential to differentiate between the two. Stress is a response to a specific situation or event, while anxiety involves persistent worry and fear that can exist even when there is no apparent threat. Understanding this difference helps parents better address their child's emotional needs.
Children may not recognize signs of stress or know how to cope effectively with this emotion. Parents are given an opportunity to model healthy methods for their children to cope with stress through empathy and understanding, first by recognizing the signs of stress but then intervening positively.
Parents can do this through some of the following interventions:
Create a Safe Space
An essential part of creating a safe space is being present. Find a time when your child is most willing to engage in conversation. This may be at bedtime or while driving to school. Ensure it is an environment that feels safe for your child. Initiate conversations by expressing what you have observed. Children may be more apt to engage with this than with multiple questions, as they may not have the emotional awareness to define what they are experiencing. Be open to discussing their feelings without judgment. Encourage expression through drawings, journaling, or other creative outlets if necessary. This can provide valuable insights into their emotions.
Through active listening and engagement, parents can encourage their children to express themselves. When your child is talking with you, ensure you give them 100% of your attention, stop what you are doing, and repeat what they say. Children may test your ability to support them by offering you only parts of what they are concerned about. Refrain from interjecting your opinion or advice too quickly. Ask questions to draw out more of the conversation.
Children may struggle to accurately define their emotions, especially complex emotions such as stress. Listen for statements such as "I don't like school." Reflect back to them, reframing this statement by identifying an emotion they may understand better. For example, "School feels not so much fun right now; you must be worried about the test you have coming up."
Avoid Minimizing or Dismissing
When talking to your child about stress, avoid downplaying their emotions. Children will stop communicating if they feel judged or lectured about the "right way" to handle a situation. Instead, acknowledge their feelings and validate their experiences. Phrases like "Wow, that sounds like a really tough spot to be in. I am sorry you are going through that." can better engage them. Instead of automatically offering advice, ask for permission, such as "What do you need from me to help you right now?" or "I would like to support you. How can I be helpful?"
Model Good Stress Management
One of our greatest tools as parents is the opportunity to model healthy ways to navigate life. Children learn through the examples we provide. Talk to your children honestly about your stress and how you manage it. Using a child-appropriate filter, offer learning opportunities such as "I have a big deadline at work this week and I feel nervous about meeting it. I will get to bed early each night, so I am well rested to tackle what I need to at work." Talk through healthy coping skills you employ to help children develop some of their own. Provide education on stress-relieving activities such as listening to music, yoga, or going for a walk. Reflect on how these activities help you when you feel nervous or worried.
Seek More Support
When your child's worry seems excessive and persistent, it may be time to seek additional support and guidance. An excellent first step is to lean on your child's natural support system, including teachers or school counselors. These professional supports offer a network that can provide additional perspectives and valuable resources. Additionally, schools often have dedicated resources to assist students grappling with stress. Take the time to acquaint yourself with these resources and prompt your child to utilize them when necessary. If more help is needed, pediatricians, child psychologists, or counselors possess the expertise to provide specialized strategies tailored to address stress that appears unmanageable, as it may be a sign of anxiety.
Stress is a natural part of life. It serves as an internal barometer that we need to prepare for change. Parental awareness of the signs of stress and through conversation about healthy stress management, parents can equip their children to better tackle life challenges.