Is your child stressed?

Is your child stressed?

REACH OUT Children are often unwilling, or have a great deal of difficulty discussing the issue of stress.

Children have developmental stages. They exhibit certain behaviour at each stage of their development. When we see behaviour which is not connected with their development stages, it can be cause for concern, as they could be exhibiting signs of stress.

At the Kindergarten level a child might demonstrate stress by hanging on to the parents, crying a great deal, throwing temper tantrums and suddenly developing fears. 
Bed-wetting could reappear and general incontinence.  Stressed children at this level often have high sensitivity to sudden or loud noises.  

When a child reaches elementary school, he/she will normally be able to talk to parents about stress. They might act out their stress and unhappiness in uncharacteristic behaviour.  The child might complain of stomach ache, head ache, sore throat, have no appetite or, conversely, want to eat more and more comfort food.  They might appear dull and lethargic and not recover completely from colds and flu, or want to stay home even when they are well. Often, sleep patterns are disrupted and nightmares become common.  A normally passive child might be suddenly aggressive, irritable and exhibit disruptive behaviour; refusing to go to school and start failing subjects they are good at. Socially they might become withdrawn.  

Once a child becomes a teenager, things change.  The usual conversational child who was once happy to talk about problems with Mum and Dad might now be mute.  Stressed teenagers can become like elementary school children.  They suffer the same trauma and will withdraw into immature behaviour —bedwetting, etc. Most worryingly, stressed teenagers might develop suicidal tendencies and experiment with drugs and drink. Many teenagers become non-conformists and fall prey to negative outside influences.  They experience ‘growing up’ fears and their performance at school is often affected.

Why do children become stressed?

Stress can come from within and outside (which includes the family, school, friends and environment.)  At the very beginning, for example at Kindergarten, separation anxiety is the great cause of anxiety; then as the child develops, academic and social pressures add to the stress.

Parents, unknowingly, add to the stress in their children’s lives.  They often have high expectations for their children, although the children might not have the same level of ability or motivation to follow their parent’s expectations.  

Listen to your children:  they will begin to complain about the activities they attend and refuse to attend the activities — these are all signals that the child gives out to parents that ‘enough is enough.’ In cases like this, parents need to talk to their child — give them options — maybe stopping one activity.  If they cannot stop the activity suddenly, then discuss ways in which the child can manage his or her own time more effectively so that stress is not part of the timetable.  

Children are often unwilling or have a great deal of difficulty discussing the issue of stress.  A way in, might be to discuss your own fears and your own stress with the child.  This will bridge the way into the child because he/she will see that you are willing to discuss your worries and he/she will feel that they can talk to you about their own issues.  

However, parents need to be careful how they talk about their jobs and their own stress.  Is someone sick in the family?  Is Mum fighting with Dad over personal matters? Is the family in financial trouble?  Be careful how you discuss these issues when the children are present because a child will pick up on the parental anxiety and start to worry themselves.  

Children who watch disturbing and violent images on TV or hear talk about war, terrorism may start to worry.  Talk to your child about what they see and hear and check what they watch on TV.  Explain disasters and world problems in terms they understand and feel secure about.

How can you recognise stress in your child?

Initially it will be shown through a change in short-term behaviour.  Minor things like: mood swings, change in sleep patterns, bed-wetting, stomach aches and head aches.  Other signs are lack of concentration, lack of interest in completing schoolwork; failure in school work.  Children might spend time alone, older children might start to bully younger ones, lie to parents or defy authority figures.  Younger children might start nail biting, nose picking, thumb sucking and hair twirling.  

How can parents reduce stress in the child?

First you need to provide proper rest and nutrition to increase the child’s physical health and the child’s coping skills.  Make time for your child each day.  Make yourself available for talk and discussion and as the child matures. Notice the stress, and then talk about it. Talk about possible causes; suggest solutions for coping with the stress. Prepare the child to anticipate potentially stressful situations. An example might be the appointment at the dentist.  Talk about what is going to happen there and be explicit but gentle. 
Allow the child to express him/herself and reassure them that it is normal to feel angry, lonely, scared or worried.  Above all, let the child know that other people share the same feelings.

Some ideas for helping children cope with their stress are to read books, where children identify with characters in stressful situations.  They learn how the hero copes and enables them to feel more positive about their own situation.

Many psychologists, who have researched on ‘childhood and education’ believe that an important cause of stress is how children think about themselves and their ability.  If the child starts to think of themselves in a negative way, they will avoid tasks and situations that challenge ability.  They feel they cannot take the risk of failure.  It is up to parents to be there for their children and spend time with them, so that children can move out of stress and view their life experiences in a positive way.

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