Childhood Stress
August 17, 2004, KidsHealth.org

As providers and caretakers, adults tend to view the world of children as happy and carefree. After all, what could kids possibly have to worry about?

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 (or sometimes our perceived ability) to meet them. 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 - even a child - who feels overwhelmed. A 2-year- old child, for example, may be anxious because the person she needs to help her feel good - her parent - isn't there enough to satisfy her. In preschoolers, separation from parents is the greatest cause of anxiety.

As children get older, academic and social pressures (especially the quest to fit in) create stress. In addition, well-meaning parents sometimes unwittingly add to the stress in their children's lives. For example, high achieving parents often have great expectations for their children, who may lack their parents' motivation or capabilities. Parents who push their children to excel in sports or who enroll their children in too many activities may also cause unnecessary stress and frustration if their children don't share their goals.

Your child's stress level may be raised by more than just what's happening in her own life. Does she hear you talking about troubles at work, worrying about a relative's illness, or fighting with your spouse about financial matters? Parents need to be careful how they discuss such issues when their children are near because children will pick up on their parents' anxieties and start to worry themselves.

The events of September 11, 2001, and the changes in our world since then have also added to the stress of many children - and not just those who were directly affected by the tragedy. Children who watch replays of the disturbing images on TV or hear talk of plane crashes, war, and bioterrorism may worry about their own safety and that of the people they love. Talk to your child about what she sees and hears, and monitor what she watches on TV so that you can help her understand what's going on and reassure her that she's safe.

Also consider that complicating factors, such as an illness, death of a loved one, or a divorce, may be causing your child's stress. When these factors are added to the everyday pressures kids face, the stress is magnified. Even the most amicable divorce can be a difficult experience for children 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. Parents should always operate in the best interest of their child.

Recognizing the Symptoms
It's not always easy to recognize when your child is stressed out. Short-term behavioral changes, such as mood swings, acting out, changes in sleep patterns, or bedwetting, can be indicators of stress. Some children 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 up new habits like thumb sucking, hair twirling, or nose picking; older children may begin to lie, bully, or defy authority.

Reducing Stress
How can you help your child cope with stress? Proper rest and good nutrition can help increase your child's coping skills, as can good parenting. Make time for your child each day. Whether she needs to talk or just be in the same room with you, make yourself available. Even as your child gets older, this "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 by showing interest in your child's life, no matter what her age, you're showing her that she's important to you.

Help your child cope with stress by talking with her about what may be causing it. Together, you can come up with a few solutions. Some possibilities are 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 your child by anticipating potentially stressful situations and preparing her for them. For example, let her know ahead of time that she has a doctor appointment, and talk about what will happen there.

Remember that feeling some level of stress is normal; let your child know that it's OK to feel angry, scared, lonely, or anxious. Let her know that other people share her feelings.

Books are a great way to allow young children to identify with characters in stressful situations and learn how they cope. Some titles include Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst; Tear Soup by Pat Schweibert, Chuck DeKlyen, and Taylor Bills; and Dinosaurs Divorce by Marc Brown and Laurene Krasny Brown.

Most parents have the skills necessary to deal with their child's stress. The time to seek professional attention is when any change in behavior persists or when your child's stress is causing serious anxiety. If you are unsuccessful after several attempts to get to the source of your child's troubles, see your child's doctor and talk to the counselors and teachers at your child's school. These sources can lead you to competent professional help.