Stress is the background noise in our lives – for children, too. Even minor stresses can cause permanent problems when they build up. By being aware of the symptoms of stress in children, you’ll know when to reach out for expert help.
by Gerald Dlubala
We are constantly reminded of the health and physical ailments associated with elevated stress levels. Work situations, family concerns, or money issues are only the beginning. Add to that the latest economic woes, and it’s easy to see why so many families are feeling overwhelmed.
But while parents may feel that these stressful situations are their problem, stress has increasingly become a more common diagnosis when it comes to our children as well, and not only because of those awkward adolescent years. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) through its partner website, healthychildren.org, is reporting that children as young as age 5 have been diagnosed with stress-related issues.
These stresses can come from within the child themselves, or can come from outside sources, such as school events, societal issues, or even from their own family, including parental pressures and expectations. Worrisome issues for our children include making friends, doing well in school, and handling peer pressure.
If the child has any type of physical or mental disability, or even looks a bit different, such as having a unique eye or hair color, ethnic traits, or physical structure, the child is left open to issues related to attributes that she cannot control.
“Mommy, I have a tummy ache”
Minor stresses are generally not harmful, and are simply a part of the growing up and maturing process. Most kids welcome these challenges and react appropriately, adapting to the situation at hand. These are usually events that the children feel concern mostly only themselves, such as a late homework assignment, a lost personal article, or torn pants from the playground.
But even minor stresses, according to the AAP, can lead to long-lasting and harmful effects when they are not addressed properly, are left to mount or compound themselves, or are put on a child all at once.
Unplanned stressful events automatically raise the heart rate and accelerate breathing. They can increase tension and elevate blood pressure. This can cause stomach upset and headache. On a continued basis, children can become more prone to illness and more likely to develop eating and sleep disorders.
Many children lose interest in school, especially if it is the source of their problems. Their schoolwork tends to suffer.
Major stresses are usually seen by the child as a threat not only to them but to their family. A potential relocation, change of schools, or family death or divorce can cause lingering stress in the child, which in turn causes more lasting, potentially life-changing effects.
Most of our children’s problems occur somewhere in the middle. The X factor in the level of stress that a child perceives is the child’s age, development, and maturity level. Previous experience and the individual child’s temperament also factor in.
Modern life compounds stress
Staff psychologists at the Child and Adolescent Psychology Services at St. Louis Children’s Hospital are quick to remind us that today’s adolescents may face more stress than those of previous years. Along with this, the change in the family dynamic may provide less support as well.
The days of the large extended family, including the grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc. of both Mom and Dad have given way to more mobile families who leave their extended base. There is also a higher incidence of divorced, single-parent situations.
Because of this, children may be forced into situations where they spend more time alone or in after-school programs. They may be put into a situation where although a child, parenting has become one of their role—they are caring for themselves more, or even caring for a younger sibling. This loss of family togetherness as well as the increased responsibility can be a source of stress in itself if a child is not equipped to handle it.
Add to this the constant messages about safety, the increased media coverage about kidnapping, sexual abuse, and the overall dangers that they may face in our unsafe world, and it’s not hard to see how our children can feel very anxious and afraid in many situations.
Is your child undergoing serious stress?
The AAP and St. Louis Children’s Hospital both recommend that you keep a lookout for these symptoms in your child:
It is important to note that all these symptoms may show themselves at one time or another in your child’s development. When they become persistent behavior, however, and interfere with a child’s normal routine, it may be time to consult a professional.
Your family pediatrician is a good place to start. Other resources include the child psychology or psychiatry services at your local children’s hospital. Many children’s hospitals have free telephone help lines.
For more than 20 years, St. Louis Children’s Hospital has run an answer line staffed by pediatric nurses who can be reached seven days a week toll-free from anywhere in the country at 800-678-KIDS. Your insurance company may also have a telephone help line.
By being sensitive to your child’s signs of serious stress, and by reaching out for help, you can head off suffering and prevent permanent harm.
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A lifelong St. Louis resident, Gerald Dlubala has spent the last 15 years writing about topics including health and wellness, education, family matters, and the wonder, humor, and lessons of everyday life.