Stress is common
Children commonly experience stress -- marked by feelings of doubt about one's ability to handle life's situations -- as MUCH AS adults do. Dr Barbara Howard, a pediatrician at Johns Hopkins, says a quarter of her young patients come for stress-related problems. "They'll come in with abdominal pain, urinary frequency, headaches...a whole variety of complaints mistaken for medical problems."
Parents are frequently wrong about the sources of stress in their children's lives, according to surveys by Georgia Witkin of Mount Sinai Medical School. They think children worry about friendships and popularity, but they're actually fretting about the grown-ups in their lives. "The biggest concern," she says, "was that the parents are going to be sick, or angry or they're going to divorce." And often children show global worries -- wars, environmental issues, and crime, notes Dr Jay Giedd of the National Institutes of Health.
Whatever the sources of pressure, parents can model stress-reducing behavior and coach their kids to "de-stress" at a young age.
Showing stress through behavior
Children often react to stress by showing inappropriate, even disturbing behavior like throwing tantrums or acting ill. Note these examples from my book Nurture Your Child's Gift (Beyond Words Publishing):
Mark was only two years old when his parents divorced. Confused, Mark wandered around the house, calling plaintively for his father. But spending time on weekends with Dad made him cry. Most weekends, in fact, Mark developed stomachaches that were so bad, he'd miss preschool on Mondays.
When her brother was born, four-year-old Miranda started sucking her thumb. This behavior continued for a year. As the baby grew, Miranda's behavior became so aggressive, she would yank the pacifier from his mouth. She'd then put the pacifier in her mouth while her brother cried.
At 17, Jen was a high school senior expecting to graduate with honors in the spring. Just before Christmas, however, Jen's father lost his job and the family had to move into the basement of a cousin's house. Jen soon developed a severe allergy, then asthma. The illness cost her so much time in absenteeism that she required home-schooling to make up the difference.
Sources of stress
As these examples show, various kinds of stress-related behavior show up at different ages. Stress for preschool children can arise from many sources: a new face at home or at day care, the disappearance of a familiar person in their lives, or abrupt changes in family and routines.
During grade-school years, children are concerned with pleasing teachers, parents, guardians and coaches. School life brings higher levels of stress every year. The threat of not being accepted by their peers terrifies them. Even sleepovers, parties, sporting and music competitions can trigger stressful reactions.
Through middle school and beyond, the pressures kids feel from parents, teachers, peers, society -- and within -- keep increasing. Because they have grown more mature, demands for their time and effort often create a mental and emotional tug of war.
For Mark and Jen, their life-altering events expressed themselves in illness, underscoring the link between thoughts and physical health. Mark Flinn of the University of Missouri found that a child's risk of upper-respiratory infection increases by 200 percent for seven days following a high-stress event.
For Miranda (who took her baby brother's pacifier), her parents might confuse what they see as normal behavior with their child's expression of anxiety. Like most children, Miranda displays her tensions with small acts with aggressive undertones. You can coach them to subdue their aggression in healthy ways, explained here.
Ways To help
Experiment with these ideas to help children manage stressful situations.
- Don't try to "fix" everything for the child. Avoid giving advice. Often just listening so your kids feel truly heard relieves their stress.
- As you listen, ask questions that encourage your child to think a situation through. "What's the next step?" or "How would you handle that?" or "What-if" questions.
- Encourage quiet time -- listening to sounds of rain or waves on the beach, recordings of whales or birds, even their own heartbeats.
- Help children "hear" themselves. Encourage them become aware of their thoughts. When they feel free to speak aloud about a situation, the solution becomes clear.
- Do deep breathing exercises to produce relaxation.
- Have kids do stretches, walk the dog or run on the treadmill. Any movement they enjoy will ease stress.
- Create soothing, rhythmic music, even simple drumming, to help lessen muscle tension.
These suggestions teach kids how to reduce pressure and enjoy life. Then they'll look back on their childhoods with fun memories of amusement parks and movie matinees. And as a parent, you'll relax knowing you helped make that happen.
For more on kids and stress: