As adults, all of us are likely very well-acquainted with stress. It’s an everyday thing for a lot of people. Work, money, family, relationships – they can all be the cause of stress. We all manage it in our own way, some better than others. But it just feels like a regular, normal part of adulthood! However, it’s important to remember that stress is not limited to grownups. Kids can experience and feel stress, from elementary school through high school. Stress in children manifests itself in many different ways, and has many different cause. As parents, it’s important that we recognize the signs, and understand how better to help our stressed out kids.
Is there any more helpless feeling than not being able to help our kids? Stress in children can definitely feel like that. But figuring out the root of your child’s stress is key.
When you don’t really know there’s a problem, or understand why there’s a problem, helping your kids with that problem can be impossible. The first step to helping our kids work through stress is recognizing some of the triggers. Stress in children can be related to school, friends, sports, or a major life change. We expect a lot from our kids, and it can become quite overwhelming for them to juggle it all. Kids who are being bullied may also begin to exhibit signs of stress, as they try to navigate through such a difficult time.
Even things that we try to shield them from can cause stress. For example, if your family is experiencing money woes, your kids likely realize something is troubling you. They may take that and internalize it, and stress themselves out. Children of separated or divorced parents oftentimes get stressed out, as their lives change and new routines emerge. Feeling unsafe in their home or neighborhood can weigh very heavily on kids of all ages, too.
Next, we have to be able to recognize the signs of stress in children. These are a little trickier to pin down.
Stress in children will usually manifest in two ways: physical symptoms, or emotional and behavioral symptoms. If you notice physical changes in your child, such as weight loss or weight gain, signs of self-injury, or they look like they’re exhausted and not sleeping well, those merit investigation. Some stressed out kids will have symptoms of illness without actual illness, like a headache, stomach ache, or other vague stomach pain.
Other physical signs of stress in children may include sleep disturbances, nightmares, or even bed wetting. Changes in sleep patterns are fairly normal in toddlerhood and early childhood. But if these changes come on suddenly in later childhood or the tween or teen years, they could be an sign that something is really bothering your kid.
Abrupt changes in your child’s behavior or their emotional state are pretty big red flags. Sure, we expect some changes as our kids become teens and tweens. But stress-related changes will be a bit different. If your child is suddenly anxious or worried all the time, or has developed new and unusual fears of everyday things, pay attention! Stubborn or aggressive behavior, an inability to control their emotions (crying uncontrollably, lashing out, etc.), and an inability to relax are also signs something more may be going on.
So how can you help your stressed out kid?
First and foremost, be there. And that means THERE there. Be present in the time you spend with your child. Ask questions, listen when they talk, and try to get them to open up to you. Make sure your home is safe, secure, and dependable; it should be the one place they feel supported at all times. Communicate regularly about upcoming changes, so your kids aren’t taken by surprise by a big life shift. Try to keep a calming and easygoing family routine at home, like Friday Night Movies or a weekly game night. Routine can be very important when your child feels like everything else is spiraling out of their control. As always, encourage, support, and love your kids, and make it a point to build their self-esteem at every opportunity.
If you feel like you can’t help them enough on your own, make an appointment with a therapist. Sometimes, it’s easier for kids to open up to someone who isn’t a close family member, especially if their stress source is something they consider a personal failure or related to decisions and action made by their parents. There’s no shame in seeing a therapist, and it might be beneficial to your child to have that line of supportive communication open when they need it.
Stress in children can be hard to recognize, and harder to manage. But as parents, we have to make sure that we’re tuned in to changes that are happening, and that we are a source of support and love, always.