No doubt many of us have expressed a desire to return to our childhoods — a less taxing time when we didn’t have to work, pay the bills or perform the many other responsibilities of being a full-fledged adult.
But we forget that childhood can be stressful. In fact, kids often suffer in silence, according to Michelle L. Bailey, M.D., FAAP, a pediatrician who teaches mindfulness-based stress reduction skills to children and authored the book Parenting Your Stressed Child.
In her book, Bailey cites research that shows that kids struggle with moderate to extreme levels of stress. They may be stressed out about everything from their academic performance to their peer relationships to their family’s finances.
And that stress can have a big effect on kids.
“Chronic stress has a significant negative impact on health and may increase risk of cardiovascular disease,” Dr. Bailey said. Stress also can fuel negative behaviors, leading to harmful consequences for kids and teens, she said.
Below, Bailey shares the various signs of stress along with how parents and caregivers can help their kids cope successfully.
Telltale Signs of Stress
The best way to determine if your child is stressed is by asking them directly, Bailey said. She suggested asking these questions:
- What does the word “stress” mean to you?
- How do you know when you’re stressed?
- What causes you to worry or feel stressed?
- What do you do to feel better when you’re stressed?
Asking these questions helps you better understand what triggers your child’s stress and how they cope with stress, Bailey said.
Also, pay attention to any changes in your child. In Parenting Your Stressed Child, Bailey explains that stress may be subtle. For instance, a child who used to sleep soundly may now wake up in the middle of the night, she writes. Or a child who used to earn mostly As and Bs now gets Cs and Ds. (In fact, decreased academic performance is another common sign, she said.)
In general, kids may show physical, emotional or behavioral signs (or all three). According to Bailey, some of the common ones include:
- chest pain
- rapid heartbeat
- social isolation
- withdrawal from usual activities
- mood swings
- emotional outbursts
- trouble concentrating
The American Psychological Association has more information on identifying stressors in kids and teens.
How Parents Can Help
Bailey offered these suggestions for empowering your kids to cope effectively with stress.
1. Normalize stress. Let your child know that stress is a normal part of life and that everyone deals with it, Bailey said.
2. Remember that stress is one-sided. In other words, “What may be stressful to one child may not be stressful to another,” Bailey said.
3. Discuss healthy ways of dealing with stress. Physical activity, relaxation strategies and breathing techniques are all healthy ways of coping with stress, Bailey said. She also underscored the importance of mindfulness, which she defined as “paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, in a non-judging way.”
She said that “mindfulness helps us to become aware of patterns of habits that may lead to our suffering.” It also “reminds us that we have a choice in how we respond — vs. react — to life’s stressful moments,” she said.
4. Use effective strategies yourself. “Parents who commit to [effective] practices in their own lives can model healthy coping for their children and actively teach their kids these valuable life skills,” Bailey said.
5. Limit screen time. According to Bailey, the devices that today’s kids have at their disposal – often without much parental or adult supervision – expose them to different kinds of potentially distressing information.
“Screen activities such as TV, video games, computer games, social media, cell phone usage (texting and sexting) and movies have increased over the past few decades,” she said. She cited the recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which suggests limiting screen time to two hours a day max.
By helping your kids manage even the smallest stressors, you’re arming them with important life tools. As Bailey said, “Learning to effectively manage day-to-day stress in healthy ways provides a strong foundation to help us navigate the choppy waters of stressful major life events.”