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Helping Kids Deal With Stress

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT

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Kids and Stress

Stress, stress, stress. For most adults, stress is an unavoidable part of modern life. Stress can come from work, relationships, financial problems, and even from friends. When we’re in school, we learn that stress is what causes ecosystems and organisms to change. When we’re adults, we learn that stress is one of the consequences of growing up. We learn that stress changes us.

In fact, many of us come to understand that how we deal with the stress in our lives might be the true measure of our character. When we deal with it productively, we see ourselves as successful, well-adjusted adults. On the other hand, when stress starts to get us down, we might feel overwhelmed, and turn to one of the many coping mechanisms we’ve learned along the way to deal with the pressures of life. Some of us use exercise, some of us have hobbies, and some of us just need to talk to friends or family. What many of us don’t realize, however, is that kids feel stress, too—but unlike adults, most kids don’t have the coping mechanisms to deal with it.

Sources of Childhood Stress

Stress in children can come from a variety of sources. For young children in preschool and elementary school, stress can come from the simple fact of being separated from their parents and spending time away from home. As kids progress through school, their levels of stress tend to increase in direct proportion to the amount of work expected from them—as they rise through the grades, their levels of stress rise with them. At the same time, social issues begin to become a source of anxiety: kids worry about the clothes they wear, who their friends are, whether or not they’re popular, and a million variations on the theme of fitting in. By the time they enter middle and high school, all of these things can pile up, and the result can be a kid who’s experiencing stress.

Another source of stress for children can be the adults around them, including their parents. No matter how careful parents are, there are times when it’s impossible to hide the stress in their lives from their children. Despite the best intentions of parents, sometimes kids overhear arguments and/or discussions about financial issues or problems at work. Even the smoothest divorce can be hard for children, and unfortunately, if there’s tension in a household, kids often act like sponges, and absorb it. Parents should not feel guilty about this. It’s one of the difficult parts of being a parent. The good news: parents can recognize signs of stress in a child, and take proactive steps to help.

Signs of Stress in Children

According to the American Psychiatric Association, for kids in early childhood (ages 3-5) middle childhood (ages 6-11), all of the following things can be signs of stress:

  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Increased moodiness
  • Changes in eating patterns
  • Headaches or stomach aches
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Difficulty completing school work

For pre-teens (ages 11-12) and adolescents (ages 13-17), everything listed above can be a sign of stress, as well as the following:

  • Defiance
  • Major changes in grades
  • Heightened emotions
  • Irritability
  • Overeating/Undereating
  • Hostility
  • Major change in peer groups

Each of the signs of stress listed above, when taken alone or even in small clusters, might be typical pre-teen or teen behavior. All kids have moments of moodiness, defiance, or irritability. They can change peer groups without it being cause for alarm, and they can certainly experience academic ups and downs. It’s when these things happen over and over, or happen in groups, that parents need to start paying attention. But when taken together, they might be signs that their kids are getting stressed.

How to Help Kids Showing Signs of Stress

The most important thing a parent can do for a child they think might be under stress is to communicate with them. For younger children, the first step is often paying close attention and listening carefully when they’re most likely to talk—right after school, during dinner time, or maybe at bed time. By listening closely, parents can learn a lot about what’s going on, and discover that sometimes, the remedy might be simple: more time at the playground, more on-on-one time, or a quick talk with an older sibling. For children in their middle years, parents might need to initiate conversations, and start by taking interest in the things that the kids care about. By offering a warm and sympathetic ear, parents can create an environment where kids want to open up.

If kids start to talk about what’s bothering them, parents should remember to stay calm, even-keeled, and focus on validating their feelings, rather than inserting adult opinions. For teenagers, communication can sometimes be difficult, but it’s crucial to keep lines of communication open.

Model Positive Stress-Management

As most parents know, if a teenager doesn’t want to talk, they probably won’t – in this case, the best thing a parent can do, after offering a safe and supportive place to talk, is model positive ways for dealing with stress. Plenty of physical activity, a proper diet, and regular sleep patterns all form the foundation of a healthy lifestyle. If teenagers see their parents engaging in these fundamental, positive behaviors, then they are more likely to follow their lead, and engage in them, themselves. Finally, if a parent feels that their child is displaying signs of stress on a regular and recurring basis, then they might want to consider enlisting the services of a mental health professional, such as a child psychologist or psychiatrist. There are many well-trained, highly skilled counselors available who specialize in childhood and teenage stress.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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