Common Causes of Childhood Stress and How Parents Can Help

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Children experience stress for a variety of reasons, and stress can crop up without warning.  While adults tend to know when they are under stress, children often internalize these uncomfortable feelings.  They don’t always ask for help because they don’t understand it.  They might not even be able to identify their triggers or connect the dots between their emotions and their physical responses.

In general, physical complaints and behavioral changes are indicative of stress in children.  Children experiencing stress are likely to exhibit one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Stomachaches
  • Headaches
  • Sleep disturbance (difficulty falling asleep or frequent nightmares)
  • Changes in eating habits
  • School refusal 
  • Decreased social interaction
  • Frequent crying
  • Temper tantrums
  • Regressed behavior
  • Anxious behavior (skin picking, nail biting, hair twirling)

It’s important to pay close attention to behavioral changes in young children, particularly if frequent physical complaints are also present.

While stress can have many triggers, there are a few causes that tend to pop up regularly:

Transitions:

Transitions can be difficult for young children.  Many children respond well to structure and routine, and changes (both big and small) can cause stress.  A new school. a new home, a new classroom, a new work schedule for mom or dad, a new baby…the list goes on.

Be on alert for possible signs of stress when transitions occur so that you can intervene before the stress level increases.

Parental stress:

Stress does tend to have a trickle down effect when it comes to families, and when parents are under stress kids pick up on it.  While we all do our best to shield our kids from adult issues, kids can be very intuitive and like to listen in on conversations.

Be aware of your own daily stress level and try to get the help you need so that you can cope more effectively when the kids are present.

Family discord:

Divorce is an obvious source of childhood stress, and it can linger on long after the divorce is final.  It’s very difficult for children to understand and cope with divorce, and often they tend to blame themselves or wonder what they could have done to stop it.

Other instances of family discord can cause stress for children, as well.  Sibling bullying is a very real and very scary problem.  It tends to get overlooked at times and is often thought of as normal sibling rivalry, but it can be very stressful (not to mention dangerous) for the child on the receiving end.

Even fractured relationships with extended family can take a toll on kids.  If children hear about or witness family discord, they might feel obligated to choose a side and act accordingly.  That’s a lot of pressure for young children.

Friendships can be tricky:

Making and keeping friends isn’t always easy.  Friendships change over time, and this can cause stress for the kids who tend to stick to one or two friends.  When kids feel left out they tend to engage in self-blame, and this exacerbates stress.

Bullying of any kind causes significant stress for children.

Academic pressure:

Some kids never worry about school at all, while others obsess over every single test, quiz, and homework assignment.  Some kids spend hours making sure their homework is perfect, while other fly through it without even reading the directions.  All kids are different.

Even when they’re young, children can sense the importance of performing.  As natural pleasers, this can add a significant amount of stress to the school day.

How parents can help:

  • Talk about stress:  Describe it.  Share your own experiences in age-appropriate language.  Normalize it.
  • Educate them about the mind-body connection:  Connect the dots for them so that they can begin to understand that stress can cause headaches, stomachaches, and other physical symptoms.
  • Listen:  If we want to help our children cope, we have to listen to what they are saying.  Don’t dismiss things that seem small to you.  Those things might feel very big to your child.
  • Teach relaxation strategies:  A stress ball kept in a desk at school can provide relief when academic stress sets in.  Deep breathing exercises and guided relaxation can help your child learn to calm her senses and breathe her way through a stressful moment. Music, reading, and journaling (even for little ones – one word at a time still releases the negative emotions) are all useful strategies.
  • Prioritize a consistent sleep schedule
  • Prioritize healthy eating habits
  • Ensure that your kids get plenty of exercise and outdoor play
  • Provide creative outlets within the home
  • Avoid over-scheduling 
  • Allow mental health days:  Sometimes kids need a day off.  One day of missed school won’t set your child back too much, especially if it means caring for the soul and sending your child back relaxed and ready to learn.

Childhood stress can have a lifelong impact on children unless they learn how to manage and cope with it.  An understanding parent can be the difference between a child who internalizes negative emotions and a child who understands the importance of asking for help.  Be the parent who provides the shelter from the storm.  Your children will thank you one day…that much I can promise.

If your child appears to be under stress more often than not and the above mentioned strategies fail to provide relief, it’s best to contact a licensed mental health professional for an evaluation.

 

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About Katie

Katie Hurley is a Child, Adolescent, and Family Psychotherapist and Parenting Expert in Los Angeles, CA. She works in private practice in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, writes for PBS Parents, Washington Post Parents, and the Huffington Post. She is the author of "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World" (Tarcher/Penguin, 2015) and the forthcoming "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" (Penguin Random House, 2018)

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