“I have a tummy ache.” Have you ever heard those words from your child before? While sometimes it is truly a virus or other bug, it can also be one of many ways our kids reach out to us and let us know that they, too, feel stress and every day pressures of life. Children are not immune to outside pressures, and research has found that young children, especially those under the age of 10, are not equipped to handle high levels of stress. Children 6 and under are even more unlikely to be able to comprehend situations and react to them in emotionally healthy ways. However, children of all ages every day experience stressful situations. It is up to us to equip them with the tools they need to deal with the stressors without damaging their outlooks on life.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Stressors
There is such a thing as good stress for a child. Our bodies are created with a nervous system and certain hormones that work together to provide increased levels of adrenaline and cortisol when we are feeling stress. These physical changes in our bodies are what cause hearts to race, breathing rates to rise, and our bodies to sweat. These changes allow our bodies to react quickly to stressors – something we want our children to experience.
Consider watching your child learn to ride his bike for the first time. Most likely there are some wobbly knees, he is alert and wide-eyed, and tries to react quickly to the tipping tires. These are all the result of the stress his mind and body feel while doing this new activity. The stress of trying something new makes his body on high alert to be ready to keep the rest of him safe. Even the stress of losing a library book can be a good thing for a child who needs to learn better skills for responsibility, so they take that stressful energy to search for (and hopefully find) that elusive book.
Other stressors can also trigger these same responses, but are not positive stressful situations for our kids. These are things like arguing with friends or family, struggling in a class, or experiencing a short-term stressor like an accident that leaves no long term harmful effects. These events all trigger the same physical changes in the body, but often do not come with the encouraging results of being able to ride down the driveway on two wheels for the first time.
Repeatedly feeling stress in academia is at the heart of a new documentary, Race to Nowhere, that is an attempt to evangelize educators, parents, and communities to rethink education. Children today more than ever before are experiencing the stress of applying to schools, even pre-schools, taking advanced courses, and participating in every conceivable extracurricular activity.
In our children’s lives there will be those moments of tragedy we wish we could erase for them. Losing close family members, struggling with a severe illness, or missing a parent deployed in the military are all examples of stressors that can forever actually change the cognitive functions of children. Research shows that a child who experiences significant stressors can actually then have a decreased size of the hippocampus, the portion of the brain responsible for memory and emotions. Many of these children can also suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and often require professional help to deal with the stressful event.
Sometimes it is hard to tell just how bad the stress is for your child. One child might be teased in school and it is a one-time, limited, occurrence that leaves no long lasting anxious moments, while another is tortured daily with bullying in the hallways. Make sure you look for sings in your child to see if bullying has moved from bad to ugly.
What are the signs of stress in my child?
Some of the signs our children give us that they are feeling stress or anxiety mirror so many other things, but if we look closely enough and pay attention to their experiences as well, we should be able to determine whether or not that tummy ache is a cry for something else.
Common signs of stress:
- Complaints of stomach aches or headaches
- Loss of appetite
- Sleep disruptions, especially in children who once slept well
- Fidgeting or inability to sit still (as a new sign in your child)
- Increased arguing within the family or friendships
- Increased fears
- Emotional outbursts such as crying, yelling, or tantrums
- Statements such as, “I’m not good at this.”
- Lack of interest in activities
- Refusals to participate in once accepted activities, such as not wanting to go to school anymore or visit a friend’s home
What can we do?
Children need stress relievers just as we do and it is important that we give them the healthy tools with which to deal with stress at early ages, before they turn to damaging behaviors as their coping mechanisms.
- Help your child find a hobby. For some this might be knitting, but for others this could be geocaching or metal detecting.
- Encourage them to exercise. Physical activity can help regulate heart and breathing rates which are calming in and of themselves. This can be anything from yoga, to rock climbing, to tennis, to just play-time in the backyard for little ones.
- Expose your kids to art. Music, drama, and physical arts like drawing and painting can all have beneficial effects on stress levels.
- Get a pet. Studies have shown that children, especially those with underlying factors for stress such as Autism, can have lower stress levels when interacting with the family dog.
- Talk with your kids. Young children don’t have the capacity to sort out the facts from the realities of situations, making their sometimes irrational fears seem scarier and more stressful. Keep communicating with your kids as they get older so that you can help them manage their stress levels as well.
- Laugh together. Sometimes laughter truly is the best medicine. Watch a comedy together, tell silly jokes, or go down memory lane on the Road of Silliness, remembering funny events in your lives.
Stress is a natural reaction our bodies have to events around us. Children face stressors everyday as well, so it is extremely important that we acknowledge these with them and teach them positive ways of dealing with their emotions. Help your kids put it all in perspective and reassure them of their place in your life and the world.