How Does Stress Affect Children?

Stress is a normal part of life, but how and if one learns to cope with it can affect children throughout their lives both physically and emotionally.

Children need a feeling of safety and security, but many of today’s parents are dealing with their own stressors and can easily overlook how stress may be affecting their children. Financial worries and dysfunctional  family situations, along with drug and alcohol addictions are all part of today’s culture.

As the parent of a young child or a teen, be aware of the signs of stress in your children. Make an effort to become proactive, and help them gain the confidence they crave.

child stressed out in her life

Three Levels Of Stress In Children

Healthy or positive stress can be a learning tool for most of us. This kind of stress is short term, and reinforces our ability to succeed at some future life tasks. For example, child who is anxious about the first day of school can become relieved and happy that they conquered that fear.

Tolerable stress is a more serious level, but if the young person is supported by family and other loving adults, they learn how to deal with and overcome stressful situations.

Toxic stress is chronic and unrelenting. There are no supportive adults in the family circle, or they are inconsistent or unresponsive to the child’s feelings. This type of stress can affect the brain and the emotional development of children causing risks for depression, poor school performance, repeated conflict, drug and alcohol addiction, delinquency, and even health risks like heart disease.

Signs Of Stress In Children And Teens

According to the American Psychological Association, 30% of children worry about family financial problems, while at the same time parents underestimate their child’s stress level. Some obvious signs of stress in young children include:

  • Changes in appetite
  • Headaches
  • Nightmares and sleep disruption including bed-wetting
  • Clinging to parents
  • Anger, crying, and whining
  • Inability to control emotions like anger
  • Going to see the school nurse frequently
  • New or recurring  fears like of the dark or being alone
  • Frequent upset stomach

In older children some signs include:

  • Becoming withdrawn or lack of communication
  • Problems in school with peers
  • Grades dropping
  • Headaches
  • Inability to control anger or aggression
  • If your child says out loud or writes in a journal: “I’m stupid,” “No one likes me,” or “Nothing is fun anymore.”

Any of these behaviors may indicate that the stress has become too much for them to handle.

Parental Remedies

Once a parent recognizes the signs of stress, there are ways to intervene and be supportive. Helpful adults can also include coaches, teachers, and other family members.

While it seems obvious, encouraging your child to talk about what is bothering them is a great way to begin. It shows them they are not alone, and you are always there to help.

Encourage more outside play. Physical activity and exercise is a tool adults often use to reduce stress, and it also works with children. Go the park and play frisbee, touch football, and other physical games.

Be a role model by controlling your own reactions to stress.

Try to maintain some semblance of family routine like having family dinners at least a few nights a week, and requiring a night time regimen by setting a time to turn off the TV and all devices.

Provide opportunities for them to make even simple choices. It may give them a  feeling of control and self-worth.

If none of these strategies work, seek help. Partner with your child’s teachers, guidance counselor, and coaches to compare behaviors. Talk with Madison Medical Associates and get referrals to a psychologist or other available services.

With the increase in teen suicides, bullying, and violent behavior, it’s never too early to seek help.

If you suspect your child is under extreme stress, contact Madison Medical Associates at (256) 325-1160 about solutions.