Stress. This is something we adults experience to an extreme–bills to pay, careers and jobs to accomplish, appointments to schedule and attend, relationship challenges, injury or illnesses in ourselves or our families… the list goes on and on. For some of us, this can lead to unhealthy levels of stress that cause anxiety and depression. But what happens when extreme stress and anxiety are present in young children? What happens if this stress they are experiencing leads to panic attacks? If you are struggling to help your child with their stress, here are some tips that may help you navigate!
What causes stress in children?
Causes of stress differ from child to child; however, many kids and teens experience stress for similar reasons. For teenagers, the main cause of stress comes from school and an array of tough social situations. In young children, stress and anxiety is often caused by big changes or intense family situations, such as arguing parents. Young kids also stress about school, bullying, and fitting in. For me, I always stressed about succeeding. I held myself to a high standard in high school, which often left me anxious when I didn’t reach my own expectations.
How do I know if my child is stressed?
The biggest indication that your child is experiencing stress is through changes in behavior, but stress can also manifest in physical ways as well. A national survey conducted by WebMD showed that 72% of children have negative behaviors linked to stress, and 62% have physical symptoms linked to it, such as headaches and stomachaches.
Changes in behavior
Often, children will show they are stressed by exhibiting high levels of anxiety, worry, and fear. They may become more dependent on you and struggle with separation, or they may develop new fears that were previously not an issue. Some children’s stress comes out in the form of anger or frustration.
Another indication of stress is the withdrawal from activities. For example, if your child is stressed about doing well in soccer, they may tell you they don’t want to go to practice anymore. If they are struggling with reading, they may tell you they hate reading and avoid it altogether. This may indicate they are struggling to perform to a standard that is expected of them by you, a coach, a teacher, or even the expectation they are holding for themselves.
Changes in health
When I was dealing with intense anxiety and depression as a teenager, my stress manifested with intense stomach pain. This, as well as headaches, dietary changes, and frequent sickness, are all signs that your child may be struggling with too much stress. (For more information on causes of stress in young children and the long term effects, check out this article from the American Psychological Association.)
How can I help?
Show your support
As adults, it’s easy to look at our children and expect them to be carefree and to just have fun. But it’s important to remember that they are human beings with the same emotions that we experience as adults, even if their stressors are a little less intense. Something that may not be stressful to us can be a huge deal for our kids. So remember to listen.
Instead of telling your kids “It’s not that bad,” restructure your response to show your love, support, and understanding. For example: “I’m so sorry! That must be stressful to deal with! Let’s talk about it together.” Try your best to not make them feel like their emotions are wrong or that their worries are not important. Because their feelings are valid! Sometimes kids just need a trusted adult to help reassure them that everything is going to be ok.
You may also be able to help them if you can isolate what is causing the anxiety or stress. If they are willing and open to talk, encourage them to do so. Finding out exactly what is causing the stress can give you better ideas on how to handle it. For me, my stress is often triggered by a messy house or long to-do list. Identifying what is causing my stress allows me to refocus and evaluate my situation. This is a great exercise to do with our children.
Breathing, meditation, and mindfulness
When I was in high school, I dealt with major anxiety and depression. The ballet school I attended had weekly yoga classes we could attend for free as students, so I decided to take a class. I instantly noticed a difference in my mood, and my ability to cope with my stress increased. The breathing exercises we practiced allowed me to refocus and recharge. I continued to take yoga classes throughout college because of how advantageous it was for both my mind and my body. If your child is struggling with anxiety, try doing a yoga class with them. You will learn relaxation and breathing techniques that will be beneficial for you both!