Childhood stress can be caused by any situation that requires the child to adapt or change. The situation often produces anxiety. Stress may be caused by positive changes, such as starting a new activity, but it is most commonly linked with negative changes such as illness or death in the family.
Stress is a response to any situation or factor that creates a negative emotional or physical change or both. People of all ages can experience stress. In small quantities, stress is good -- it can motivate you and help you be more productive. However, excessive stress can interfere with life, activities, and health. Stress can affect the way people think, act, and feel.
Children learn how to respond to stress by what they have seen and experienced in the past. Most stresses experienced by children may seem insignificant to adults. But because children have few previous experiences from which to learn, even situations that require small changes can have an enormous impact on a child's feelings of safety and security.
Pain, injury, and illness are major stressors for children. Medical treatments produce even greater stress. Recognition of parental stress (such as divorce or financial crisis) is a severe stressor for children, as is death or the loss of a loved one.
SIGNS OF UNRESOLVED STRESS IN CHILDREN
Children may not recognize that they are stressed. Parents may suspect stress if the child has experienced a stressful situation and begins to have physical or emotional symptoms, or both.
Physical symptoms can include:
- Decreased appetite, other changes in eating habits
- New or recurrent bedwetting
- Sleep disturbances
- Upset stomach or vague stomach pain
- Other physical symptoms with no physical illness
Emotional or behavioral symptoms may include:
- Inability to relax
- New or recurring fears (fear of the dark, fear of being alone, fear of strangers)
- Clinging, unwilling to let you out of sight
- Questioning (may or may not ask questions)
- Inability to control emotions
- Aggressive behavior
- Stubborn behavior
- Regression to behaviors that are typical of an earlier developmental stage
- Unwillingness to participate in family or school activities
HOW PARENTS CAN HELP
Parents can help children respond to stress in healthy ways. Following are some tips:
- Provide a safe, secure, familiar, consistent, and dependable home.
- Be selective in the television programs that young children watch (including news broadcasts), which can produce fears and anxiety.
- Spend calm, relaxed time with your children.
- Encourage your child to ask questions.
- Encourage expression of concerns, worries, or fears.
- Listen to your child without being critical.
- Build your child's feelings of self-worth. Use encouragement and affection. Try to involve your child in situations where he or she can succeed.
- Try to use positive encouragement and reward instead of punishment.
- Allow the child opportunities to make choices and have some control in his or her life. This is particularly important, because research shows that the more people feel they have control over a situation, the better their response to stress will be.
- Encourage physical activity.
- Develop awareness of situations and events that are stressful for children. These include new experiences, fear of unpredictable outcomes, unpleasant sensations, unmet needs or desires, and loss.
- Recognize signs of unresolved stress in your child.
- Keep your child informed of necessary and anticipated changes such as changes in jobs or moving.
- Seek professional help or advice when signs of stress do not decrease or disappear.
WHAT CHILDREN CAN DO TO RELIEVE STRESS
Encourage your children to discuss their emotions. Help them come up with simple ways to change the stressful situation or their response to it.
Below are some tips that children can follow to help reduce stress:
- Talk about your problems. If you cannot communicate with your parents, try someone else that you can trust.
- Try to relax. Listen to calm music. Take a warm bath. Close your eyes and take slow deep breaths. Take some time for yourself. If you have a hobby or favorite activity, give yourself time to enjoy it.
- Exercise. Physical activity reduces stress.
- Set realistic expectations. Do your best, and remember that nobody is perfect.
- Learn to love yourself and respect yourself. Respect others. Be with people who accept and respect you.
- Remember that drugs and alcohol never solve problems.
- Ask for help if you are having problems managing your stress.
Fear in children; Anxiety in children; Childhood stress
American Academy of Pediatrics. Helping children handle stress. Available at http://www.healthychildren.org/English/healthy-living/emotional-wellness/Pages/Helping-Children-Handle-Stress.aspx.Accessed on May 14, 2014.
American Psychological Association. Identifying signs of stress in your children and teens. Available at http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/stress-children.aspx.Accessed on May 14, 2014.
Update Date 5/14/2014
Updated by: Neil K. Kaneshiro, MD, MHA, Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.