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Does Your Child Feel Stressed? Signs to look for and what you can do to help
We usually think of childhood as being carefree and that children don’t have any worries, and therefore tend to think that they don’t experience any stress. However, don’t be surprised if your child feels stressed sometimes. Stressors can be such things as moving to a new neighborhood, getting a new sibling, going to a new school or experiencing a divorce, serious illness, trauma or death in the family. If you are anxious or stressed, your child may perceive this. Children often sense the family’s emotional tension and don’t know what to do with it. If you notice a change in your child’s behavior that causes you concern, take a look at what’s happening in your child’s world and try to identify if there has been something new going on that might be triggering that behavior. And, it’s important to be aware that how you respond to and deal with stress influences how your child will.

What to Look For
Some children exhibit behaviors indicating that they are stressed in obvious ways, while others might be more subtle and quiet about it. But no matter, when your child is stressed, you are likely to notice a change in your child’s normal behavior.

  • Is your child having difficulty coping with typical everyday stresses?
  • Does your child seem to be regressing or overwhelmed?
  • Has your child been overly clingy or having nightmares lately?
  • Is your child suddenly being impulsive and aggressive?
  • Is your child being moody or showing signs of depression over an extended period of time?
  • Does your child seem to be listless and showing increasing disinterest to participate in events?
  • Has your child’s appetite or sleeping patterns changed recently, causing you to be concerned?
  • Instead of lessening, is your child’s angry, sad, or stressed behavior increasing over time?

This series of questions is a general listing of behaviors that could apply to all ages of children, from toddlers through teens. The most important thing to remember is to take notice if there has been a change in your child’s normal behavior. It may not even be one of the behaviors listed above, just something different you notice about how your child has been behaving that is causing you concern. “Are the reactions the same in children of all ages?”, you may ask. All children are different and react to stress differently. No matter what age the child is, a change in behavior could include any of those listed above.

What You Can Do
Your child might need more individual attention and assurance right now, maybe some special one-on-one time. Make your child feel special. Provide hope, which carries us through challenges, disappointments, loss, and trauma. Hope is the beacon of light at the end of the tunnel.

How do you provide hope? You could provide hope by letting your child know you understand how he or she might be feeling, and that you are there for support. You can foster the development of hope by encouraging your child to think positively about the future and to look beyond today and forward to better things. Again, modeling this behavior in your own life will do wonders to instill the habit of positive thinking in your child.

Let your child know who the support system is for social and emotional support … family, friends, neighbors, etc. Help your child to build and strengthen the skills to respond to stressful situations by gradually exposing your child to new challenges and fostering your child’s self-confidence in dealing with them. And since children continually experience challenges as they develop their social, emotional, physical and cognitive skills, encouraging them to handle such challenges in a positive way will lay the groundwork for their future response to stressful situations.

It is important for you to try to maintain a consistent, supportive environment at home, so that your child can feel safe, no matter what else changes or is going on in your child’s world. If you feel that your child is experiencing a high level of stress and you are concerned about changes in behavior, you may find it helpful to talk to your healthcare professional as well as tapping into your own support system for advice.

A support system could be a particular family member or several relatives, a special friend or a group of friends, someone from a religious, medical or social agency; basically, whomever you feel comfortable to turn to for help, support or advice.

Play Helps Children Neutralize Stress
Play is a wholesome outlet for children to work through their fears, and a way for you to better understand how your child is coping. Physical play activities, such as running, jumping, climbing, riding a bike, skating or playing sports provide opportunities for your child to release stress.

Children reveal what they are thinking and how they feel about things when they are involved in imaginative play with dolls, action figures, blocks, kitchen sets or play houses and when they are playing with creative materials, such as clay or paper and crayons or paint. So, pay close attention to the clues you observe and you will have a better understanding of your child’s concerns, in order for you to help your child deal with or overcome them.

Reading books to your child will help to strengthen the bond between you as well as providing an opportunity for you to introduce books on a topic that would be pertinent to your child’s current concerns. There are wonderful books in the children’s section of the library covering a variety of timely and important topics that effect children, such as a new sibling, death of a loved one or a pet, divorce, moving, bullies, etc. Ask the librarian for assistance in picking out the books that would be most appropriate for your child. And don’t forget music: listening or moving to pleasing music has a calming effect on children and helps them release stress, and if you join in, you will also reap the benefits.
Kathleen Alfano Ph.D., Former Director of Child Research at Fisher-Price®