Stress is a normal human condition. It’s our body’s way of dealing with any kind of demand that is placed on us – big or small, positive or negative, real or perceived. For many of us adults, we have adapted to things like workplace stress and the demands that come with balancing our family, occupational and social lives. What most of us don’t consider, though, is that children also have to deal with stress; including the pressure to do well in school, achieve their goals in sports and other extracurricular activities, maintain social relationships and strive to meet the real and perceived expectations of their parents, teachers, coaches and friends. Young people, like adults, experience stress. And as is the case with adults, too much of it, not knowing the warning signs, not having support and guidance through life’s ups and downs and not feeling the freedom to talk about stress can lead to some serious consequences. Here are some tips to spot signs of stress and ways you can support children and teens through the tough times.
“Feeling sick” may be a sign of stress.
Headaches and stomachaches are the most common complaints of children experiencing stress. Look out for excessive trips to the school nurse or frequent complaints at home that their head hurts or their stomach is upset, especially if these complaints seem to occur more frequently before a test, before a social event with their peers (again, more than normal) or before practice. Be especially aware of these symptoms if they occur more on Sundays – right before going back to school the next day.
Headaches and stomachaches are the most common complaints of children experiencing stress.
Be aware of how your child or teen interacts with other people outside your home.
Children may often seem to be his or her “usual self” at home, yet behave differently in other settings or situations. While it’s normal for their home to feel like a safe place they can be themselves, stress can sometimes affect how kids act on a sports team, in class or with their peers. Parents may want to give their child freedom to experience life on their own in some age appropriate ways, but it’s also important for parents to communicate with their child’s teachers, coaches and other families their child or teen spends time with to know how they’re doing in the world around them.
Listen carefully and learn how to translate.
Children don’t often know how to talk about their stress. They might know that something isn’t right, but not possess the awareness or the language skills to articulate it. Heck, many adults don’t! Listen for feelings of distress through other words like “angry”, “worried”, “confused” or “annoyed”. Children may also express their stress by saying negative things about themselves, others or the world around them by saying things like: “No one likes me”, “I’m stupid”, “I hate that place”, or “Nothing is fun”. It’s important for parents to listen for these words and statements and try to figure out whether they are signs of mounting stress.
Children and teens, like adults, don’t need to tackle the symptoms of stress on their own. It’s okay to ask for help from trusted friends and family members and to consider seeking guidance from an experienced professional that may be able to help. Counselors, therapists and even a good pediatrician can often provide the listening ear and good advice children and their families need to learn healthy and effective ways to cope with stress.
Watch for any changes in their behavior.
Youth of all ages, but especially younger children, often find it hard to recognize and discuss what’s bothering them. As is often the case, just like with adults, changes in behavior may provide the cues that they’re overwhelmed.
Common behavior changes in children and teens can include acting irritable or moody, withdrawing from activities that they usually enjoy, routinely expressing worry about a situation, complaining (more than usual) about school, getting tearful or fearful more easily than usual, or eating and sleeping more or less than they usually do. With teens, spending more time with their friends is normal and healthy. Be attuned to some more overt changes though – like significant parental avoidance, increased isolation, abandoning long-time friendships for new peer groups or expressing hostility towards basic family rules or towards certain family members. While resistance, striving for autonomy, seeking more independence and some of the normal “acting out” we often see with teens is to be expected, negative and sustained changes in behavior is almost always a clear indication that something is wrong.
With teens, spending more time with their friends is normal and healthy. Be attuned to some more overt changes though – like significant parental avoidance, increased isolation, abandoning long-time friendships for new peer groups or expressing hostility towards basic family rules or towards certain family members. While resistance, striving for autonomy, seeking more independence and some of the normal “acting out” we often see with teens is to be expected, negative and sustained changes in behavior is almost always a clear indication that something is wrong.
By David Vittoria, MSW, CAP, CPP, ICADC, NCAC II