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STRESS THROUGH THE AGES

A Child's Life
Part 1 of 5

How do you react when your child gets ill or when his grades begin to fall? What happens when he throws a temper tantrum? Do these events increase your stress level? Of course, they do.

Interestingly, each of these events is a possible sign that your child is also suffering from stress. His stress adds to your stress. 

If you want to break this cycle of escalating tension, it’s important for you to manage the pressures in your own life.  (You can learn more about this subject in part 3 of this series.) But part of managing your stress includes dealing with the pressures and changes in your child’s life.

Some people, even some parents, believe that when children face challenges, they’re not even aware of stress, or that they’re so resilient stress won’t affect them (if you’re a young person, yourself, you know your life isn’t that carefree).  As a matter of fact, a child’s life can be full of stress—especially in today’s world.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) reminds us that childhood involves rapid change and development in all areas of life—physical, emotional, psychological, and social—and presents many opportunities for stress. Children often accept these normal changes without difficulty, but not always. 

Stress Factors

It’s the first day of preschool. Cara clings desperately to her mother’s legs, crying hysterically, while Jarrod waves pleasantly to his father and says good-bye at the door. Every child handles stress differently, depending on personality, age, the personalities of those with whom he interacts, and particular situations. And although any change or challenge in a child’s life holds the potential for causing stress, it’s helpful to look at some of the most common sources. 

  • Separation from parents often produces protest from young children, and although it’s usually just a phase, it is a real source of stress for some children, according to the Kids’ Health website from Nemours Children’s Health System. Depending on the situation, even school-age children may suffer stress when parents leave them behind.  If separation anxiety appears suddenly in an older child, it might indicate another problem.
  • School provides the majority of stressors for many children ages 5 to 12. The pressures and changes an elementary student encounters may often seem minor to adults but can be quite stressful for a child. Eight-year-old Sherri, for example, had two tests in one day and then felt snubbed by her friends at the lunch table.  When a substitute teacher took over the class in the afternoon, Sherri was completely overwhelmed and she began crying. Tests, unexpected changes, fitting in with friends, tardiness, homework, a teacher’s discipline, the pressure to succeed—all of these present sources of stress.
  • How many extra-curricular activities does your child attend? Don’t forget to count clubs, sports, lessons, church activities—anything outside of school. Did you count more than two or three? Extra-curricular activities should add fun and interest to a child’s life. Dance lessons or playing a sport, for example, offer valuable life experience, but even these activities can prove stressful if your child is involved in too many. 
  • A child’s family environment often provides his greatest source of support and encouragement, but it can also produce the most significant stressors. How many of the following has your family experienced?
    • Moving
    • The birth of a sibling
    • Parents’ divorce or separation
    • Remarriage of a parent
    • A parent’s serious illness
    • Family arguments
    • A parent’s job loss or financial hardship
    • Lack of time spent with parents
  • Physical challenges include illness or hospitalization. Even body changes can cause stress for a child as he develops. He may feel self-conscious if he is shorter or taller than others his age. He may even wonder if he is normal. 
  • At least your child isn’t dealing with peer pressure yet, right? Unfortunately, she probably is. A recent study from the University of Maryland shows children contend with pressure from peer groups as early as age nine.  But researchers at the Max Planck Institute in Germany found that even preschoolers as young as four-years-old experience peer pressure. 
  • Unusual or traumatic events such as the death of a parent, deprivation or abuse, or becoming a victim of a natural disaster or war present situations of stress that need immediate, and perhaps professional, attention.

Stress Alert

Keep in mind that some stress in life is good—even for a child. The pressure to succeed in school, for example, can motivate your child to learn and to do his best. The pressure of competition on the soccer team or the pressure to perform well in a band concert teaches your child the value of working hard for a goal and the satisfaction of a job well-done. 

But even these good pressures can contribute to stress overload, especially when combined with negative stress.  Sixteen-year-old John still recalls the spring when he was 12. “I was getting ready for a piano recital and also waiting to hear results about my audition for a summer play,” he says, “It was a very stressful time. I found it hard to concentrate on anything else.”

Use the following list to help you identify signs of stress overload in your child’s life.

  • Your child reports physical symptoms such as headaches or stomachaches, which seem to have no other cause, or she develops a true illness.
  • He or she seems overly fatigued or restless.
  • Your child acts depressed and is reluctant to talk about his/her feelings. He/She describes themselves as feeling sad.
  • His/Her interest in school decreases, or he/she has trouble concentrating and their grades begin to suffer.
  • Your preschooler regresses by reverting to old behaviors like thumb-sucking or bed-wetting. If they are school age, they may begin to depend on you more than they used to do.
  • You notice behavioral changes such as increased anger and tantrums, irritability, moodiness, even lying or stealing. Or you see your child has acquired a new habit, such as nail-biting.
  • Your child has a loss of appetite.
  • He/she loses sleep or begins to have nightmares.
  • You notice your child grinding his/her teeth. 

Other signs of stress (although less common) include:

  • Tics:  Although tics, such as facial twitches or throat clearing, aren’t necessarily caused by stress, they may “appear suddenly after some type of physical or social stress,” according to the AAP. If your child develops a tic and you suspect it may have resulted from stress, discuss it honestly and gently with them. Don’t create more stress by acting as if there is something wrong or by trying to ignore it. 
  • Stuttering:  If a child develops stuttering as a result of severe stress, he/she will often become self-conscious about it, thus creating even more stress. Sometimes the child will avoid social contact because he/she sees others reacting to the stutter. When the stress is reduced, the stutter often fades away as well. 
  • Eating disorders:  Children who develop such disorders as anorexia nervosa and bulimia often experience stress along with depression, poor self-esteem or trauma. An eating disorder is not a common reaction to normal stress, but since such a disorder can be dangerous, parents need to be aware of the possibility. If you suspect such a disorder, seek professional help right away.

Most children don’t know how to deal with stress, even if they know what’s causing it. If a child’s stress becomes chronic, it can lead to anxiety or anxiety disorders, depression, or in extreme cases, even suicide (You can read about each of these issues in separate series of articles). To avoid this path, children need assistance in learning to deal with the pressures of life positively.

Stress Relievers

Use the following ideas from experts to help your child reduce stress in his or her life. 

1. Plan for times of separation by familiarizing your child with caregivers and new environments ahead of time, suggest the professionals with Nemours Children’s Health Systems. It’s important that you stay calm, explain when you’ll be back, say good-bye, and return at the time you promised.

2. Don’t over schedule your child’s time. Help them choose one or two extra-curricular activities that fit their interests and talents, then support them in their choices. Some children have many interests and want to be involved in all sorts of activities. As the parent, you have to set limits.

3. Find the right balance of activities, both structured and non-structured, so that your child has plenty of time to relax and play freely.

4.  The National Institutes of Health suggests that you inform your child of significant upcoming changes for the family.  Prepare them in advance for major events like moving, a parent’s job change, or an addition to the family.

5. Discuss with your child their problems and the pressures they feel. Take time to work out their problems with them.

6. Make sure your child gets plenty of sleep and exercise. Both are critical for stress reduction.

7. Keep your child’s diet free of added sugar, caffeine, and processed foods, all of which can affect mood and stress levels. Encourage them to eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables.

8. Teach your child that they don't have to be perfect in their endeavors. Keep reminding them that everyone makes mistakes and that no one expects them to be perfect.

9.  Lead by example. Let your child see you dealing with your own stress occasionally. If, for example, they observe you getting frustrated over a project you must complete for work, explain why you’re feeling stressed and tell them you're going for a walk to calm down. 

10. Try to remember your own childhood. Tell your child stories about yourself and how you handled difficult situations.

Yes, it’s been awhile since you were a child! But even if you have forgotten the pressures of your own childhood, don’t make the mistake of assuming that children don’t suffer from stress. Be aware of possible stress in your own child’s life. Make the decisions necessary—and help them make the right choices for themselves—for a healthier, happier, less stressful childhood.

 Written by Beth Prassel-Sieg
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- OTHER PARTS IN THIS SERIES -
Part 2:
STRESS THROUGH THE AGES
A Teen's Journey
Part 3:
STRESS THROUGH THE AGES
An Adult's Pressure
Part 4:
STRESS THROUGH THE AGES
No More Excuses: Stress Control Is Fundamental
Part 5:
STRESS THROUGH THE AGES
Craft Your Management Plan—and Follow Through

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A healthy outside starts from the inside. Robert Urich