Stress is a normal, unavoidable part of life. It affects everyone, even children. A preschooler is stressed when day-care arrangements are changed. A school-age child is upset when he doesn't do well on an arithmetic test. A pre-teen worries about her changing body. And a teenager feels stress as she tries to figure out what she is going to do with her life.
Parents can ease the stress that children feel and teach them to cope with stressful situations. It is important to remember that stress is a natural part of your child's life. It only becomes harmful when the problems and hassles of daily life overwhelm your child.
This publication is divided into sections that apply to preschool, school-age and teenage children. Each section gives common causes of stress and provides information that will help you with your child. Your help is vital. Children who are emotionally isolated, who do not get the support of adults, and who do not have confidence in themselves are the children who do not handle stress well.
Children of all ages feel stressed when a new baby arrives, the family moves, a divorce or remarriage occurs or when the family is under financial pressures. When you are under stress yourself, be sure to take the time to explain the situation to your children. A child who doesn't understand a situation often imagines the worst.
Remember that your child is learning from you. Parents who are high-strung, perfectionists, or poor problem solvers are apt to pass these traits on to their children because kids copy their parents' behavior.
Finally, too much stress can be harmful. You need to recognize the signs of excessive stress so that you can get help for your child. Seeking help may be as simple as talking the situation over with a friend, family member, or minister. Someone who is familiar with your family's situation may be able to give some objective, useful advice. If the situation is extreme, you may need to talk with your family physician, a psychologist, school guidance counselor, or another professional.
Common stressful situations include: starting or changing day-care, starting preschool, the arrival of a new baby or family member, being separated from a parent, being disciplined, and toilet training. Preschoolers also worry that they will be deserted or starve, and they may become fearful of strangers. Scary things, sickness, and the unknown also are stressful.
You will know that your child is suffering from too much stress if he has less energy than normal, is more irritable, has night terrors or nightmares, more frequent temper tantrums, becomes more clinging or demanding, or is crying more than usual.
What can you do? It is up to you to recognize warning signs of stress and help your child through the difficulty. Help your child to understand the situation. Explain what is going on in simple, reassuring language. Encourage your child to talk about his fears. He needs to learn to say things like, "I don't like it when your dog barks," or "I'm afraid to go into that dark room."
Don't tell your child that his fears are silly; they are very real to him. Ease his tension by offering understanding, support and plenty of affection. Holding and cuddling a young child will help to ease the stress. Finally, you can increase your child's sense of security by remaining calm during times of difficulty.
Common stressful situations include: having an unusual name, taking a test at school, feeling slow, ugly or smart, being pressured to make good grades, making new friends, feeling jealous, competing in games or with a brother or sister, arguments with parents or friends, not getting along with a teacher, being criticized, worrying about a changing body, being embarrassed, taking on more chores, and being excluded from activities and friends.
You can tell when stress is getting to your child. He may withdraw, regress, and act like a younger child, wet his bed, develop sleep problems, grind his teeth, or develop speech problems. Children under stress also may seem to think and move slowly. Other signs include: difficulty at school, stealing, lying, cheating, sadness, crying, fights, frequent falls, and accidents.
What can you do? The children who are best able to cope with stress are those who have supportive and understanding parents. Be there for your child. Try to understand what he is going through. Encourage him to talk things over, and help him to think through problems. He is beginning to develop some problem-solving skills, although he needs help in this area.
Parents often add pressure to their child's life by pushing too hard. If problems seem to revolve around school, sit down with your child's teacher and work together to set realistic goals and standards for achievement. The problem may not be academic. Sometimes children are involved in too many different activities or may have taken on too many chores at home. On the other hand, an isolated child may benefit from being encouraged to participate in a group activity, such as a 4-H Club.
Your child will benefit from your affection, approval and positive reinforcement. Listen to him and help him to find solutions to his problem; this will teach him to manage stress in his own life.
When should you seek help? When your child is in trouble at school or has been reported for juvenile misbehavior and the problem is beyond your parenting skills, seek help. Or when your child is "too perfect," this is a signal that the child is under stress and needs help. Teachers and counselors offer sound advice to help school-agers through not-so-good times. This is a good time to introduce the family to the family council concept. The family council allows the family to discuss issues. The leadership is rotated and children have equal roles in the meetings. Together, the family finds solutions to the problems.
During early adolescence, teens are very sensitive to criticism. Even well-meant advice can seem like criticism and trigger an angry or defense response. Self-esteem is generally low. Common stresses include: taking tests, pressure to make good grades, pressure to experiment with sex and drugs, problems in boy/girl relationships, concerns about fairness, right and wrong, nervousness about speeches and competition, uncertainty about personal appearance, pressure from too many activities, caring for younger brothers and sisters, not enough time, and lack of self-confidence.
How can you tell if your teenager is under too much stress? Look for eating or weight problems, excessive daydreaming, drug abuse or nervous tics like unusual eye-blinking, nail biting, and muscle twitching. Emotional stresses can lead to talk about suicide, delinquency, perfectionist behavior, isolation, and failure in school. Neglecting personal appearance, increased irritability and exhaustion are other signs of stress. Often teens respond to stress by withdrawing, not communicating, becoming rebellious, and getting into trouble.
What can you do to help? Teenagers need to find constructive ways to deal with stressful situations. As your teenager learns that he can deal with problems, he gains a positive attitude about himself. Offer honest praise when he does a good job on something. Remember to say thank you. Teenagers often feel unappreciated.
Consider your child's schedule. Is he over-extending himself? Some teenagers find themselves swamped when they add an after-school job to an already full day. Is he expected to do too much at home? Although teenagers should be doing regular chores, some do become overburdened with them. Teenagers are still children, and they need time to relax and play.
Perhaps the most effective way to help your teenager manage his stress is to keep the lines of communication open. He may not want or need your advice, but he will appreciate your attention. Most teenagers like adults to just listen to them. They want someone to hear what they have to say. This doesn't mean that you shouldn't express your opinions, particularly on important matters like values. But if every discussion turns into an argument, you may need to spend more time listening, and to express your opinions calmly and quietly.
Encourage your child to get physical. Teens can work off some of their stresses in aerobics, cycling, skating, or jogging. This is a very constructive way of dealing with stress. Other positive approaches include learning to be assertive, to control anger, and to say "no."
When should you seek help? Adolescence is a difficult time for teens and their families. When pressures become extreme and when solutions run out, it's time to talk about getting help. When you see evidence that your child is using drugs or when your teen talks about suicide or begins giving away treasured items, get professional help immediately. Watch for warning signs of depression, risky sexual practices, unusual antisocial behavior, and personality changes.
Brenner, A. Helping Children Cope With Stress. Lexington, Mass.: D.C. Health and Company, 1985.
Conrad, B.J. "Things Mother Never Told You: Children and Stress." Growing Up, Spring 1987, pp. 45-48.
McCracken, J.B. Reducing Stress in Young Children's Lives. Washington, D.C.: National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1986.
Saunders, A. and B. Remsberg. The Stress-Proof Child. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984.
This publication has been issued in print by the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service as publication number HE-371 (November 1991).
This file is one in a series of electronically available drought information publications produced with support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Extension Service, under special project number 93-EFRA-1-0013. The Drought Disaster Recovery Project was a joint effort of the Extension Services in Delaware, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia.
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