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Thinking about childhood often conjures up images of carefree kids playing dress up or running outside. But even during this fun and breezy time, children can experience stress and anxiety. This can be especially true as they enter school and experience academic and social pressures.
You might be aware that your child has a lot on his or her plate, but when does it become too much? Here are some symptoms you can look for and suggestions to help you move forward.
How children respond to stress can depend on their age, personality and coping skills, but you can generally look for these physical or behavioral changes as warning signs:
- Physical symptoms
- Headaches and stomach pains that have no medical explanation
- Decreased appetite or changes in eating habits
- New or increased bedwetting
- Nightmares and sleep disturbances
- Restlessness, irritability and agitation
- New or increased worrying/fears (fear of strangers, the dark, being alone, etc.)
- Clinginess – not letting you out of their sight
- Anger and aggression
- Mood swings
- Overreacting to normal events
- Regressing to younger behaviors
- Decreased desire to participate in activities that were once exciting
- Withdrawing from friends and family
- Inability to control emotions
- Falling grades in school
- Antisocial behavior – lying, stealing, bullying, refusing to do chores
In younger children, you might notice new habits like hair twirling, thumb sucking or nose picking.
Just like adults, children will become stressed for a variety of reasons. Some of the most common include:
- Big family changes: Events like death, divorce, moving or the introduction of a new sibling can be overwhelming for kids of all ages.
- Academic pressure: Kids who are struggling in school or are constantly seeking perfection can easily become stressed.
- Activity overload: Being involved in lots of activities, sports and clubs – along with academic and family responsibilities can become too much.
- Parental troubles: If you’re arguing with your spouse or constantly expressing worries about things like money and your jobs, your child can pick up on it.
- Social struggles: Especially as they get older, kids can start having problems with friends, trying to be popular, experiencing bullying or facing peer pressure.
- World events: As kids become teenagers, they will start becoming more aware of the world around them – and all the stress and turmoil accompanying that knowledge.
Naturally, the more these stressors start to pile up, the higher a child’s stress level can be.
How to Help
While we can’t control our children’s emotions, we can take steps to reduce their stress and give them the tools to cope.
- Open up a dialogue: Make sure your child knows it’s perfectly normal to feel worry or stress from time to time, and that you recognize what they’re going through. It’s helpful to listen without being critical or trying to fix things. Starting a two-way conversation about their feelings will help you problem-solve together.
- Reduce activities: If your child is overwhelmed by school, sports, clubs and how much time it all takes, sit down and discuss how to move forward and provide more down time. This might mean helping to manage your child’s time more effectively and/or cutting back on some activities.
- Model good behavior: Children absorb our feelings and behaviors like a sponge, so be careful to manage your own stress, and pattern healthy expression and coping techniques.
- Create a comforting home: Your child will benefit from having a safe, secure and dependable place to come home to. Be sure to prioritize quality time together – even if they don’t want to talk about their stress. Establishing family routines, and scheduled activities like family dinner or movie night can sometimes go a long way to relieving stress.
- Help them stay healthy: Help your child practice good nutrition and sleep habits – they help more than we might think.
- Prepare them for stressful situations: If you know ahead of time about a stressful event – such as a doctor’s appointment or seeing an ill relative – help your child prepare emotionally by talking about it or explaining what will happen beforehand.
When to Seek Professional Help
Parents often can help their children work through stress and teach positive management skills. But if your child’s daily routine is impacted, or they seem to suffer from anxiety, early intervention by a professional can help. A good place to start is your pediatrician or family doctor, who can refer you to a therapist or a counselor.
At Loudoun Pediatric Associates, we believe in being advocates for your children in every aspect of their lives. We’re here to help you manage your child’s stress and anxiety as part of our focus on whole child health.