We often think of childhood as a low-stress time in our lives. However, that is not the case for a majority of children in the United States. Stress can affect children of all ages and can be caused by a number of factors including both positive and negative situations. So, what signs of stress should you look for in kids? What causes stress in children, and how can a parent help their child cope with stress? In this article, we’ll answer your questions and discuss when to seek professional support for your child’s stress.
Signs of Stress in Children
How do you know if your child is facing stress? Many signs of stress in children are similar to what we see in adults, though very young children might express stress differently. For example, toddlers may display an increase in tantrums or clinginess. Some children also use behaviors like sucking their thumb or biting their nails more often in times of stress.
Other signs of stress in children can include but aren’t limited to:
- Mood changes
- Gastrointestinal distress
- Muscle tension
- Difficulty sleeping
- Changes in academic performance
- Changes in eating habits
- Trouble coping with emotions
- Feelings of depression or anxiety
- Grinding teeth
It is important to acknowledge that many kids turn inward or internalize stress, which may cause the adults around them to miss the signs. Stress can be the cause of mystery symptoms, like an unexplained uptick in stomach problems. If a child has an existing mental or physical health condition, such as an anxiety disorder, symptoms may worsen due to stress.
What Causes Stress For Children And Teens?
It goes without saying that the cause of stress will vary from child to child. That said, it can be helpful for parents to review typical stressors among children and teens which include but are not limited to:
- Grief and loss (such as that caused by the coronavirus pandemic)
- Social relationships (getting along with peers, problems in friendships)
- Health problems (personal health problems or health problems of someone they are close to)
- Family problems
- School (tests, grades, activities)
- World events
Of course, these are just some examples. Busy schedules are also prevalent among children and may cause the child to experience stress over things that are out of their control. With that in mind, parents play an important role in helping their child develop the tools necessary to be able to handle stress in a healthy way.
How To Help Children Deal With Stress
What exactly can you do to help your child deal with stress? Not all parents know how to cope with stress or show their kids how to cope with stress, but it is possible to learn strategies to assist with this. Here are some health tips and coping skills you can use to help your child deal with stress in a healthy, effective way.
Talk about stress and mental health openly
Realistically, kids will deal with stress for the rest of their lives. Start the conversation now so that kids will have the tools they need to manage stress and better understand themselves moving forward. If you have not already, ask your child if they are feeling stressed about something in their lives, whether it be school, home, activities, or peers. Let them know you’re willing to listen and encourage them to share all of the details regarding their life stressor. Sometimes it may be necessary to offer emotional support and other times, it may be necessary to work together to find solutions to their concerns.
Whether they are currently experiencing stress or not, parents can talk to their children about what it means to be stressed, the effects of stress, and how to combat stress through coping skills like art, music, journaling, breathing exercises, and other tips we will discuss in this article. Talk about what it means to use self-care.
If life stressors or another mental health challenge seems to be ongoing, you could consider the benefits of adding therapy as an additional resource to assist your child in working through their situation in a healthy way.
Make sleep and other health needs a priority
Stress can keep you awake and affect sleep quality. Not getting enough sleep can increase the body’s physical and mental stress responses. Shortage of sleep, even by a few hours, is connected to an increased risk of many health problems, including heart disease, muscle tension, blood sugar issues, a higher likelihood of getting into a car accident (for those old enough to drive), and more. On the other hand, getting enough sleep protects physical and mental health and can lower those physical and emotional markers of stress.
To help kids get enough sleep, use sleep hygiene practices. These include but are not limited to ensuring kids sleep in a cool, dark, comfortable space, removing electronics from the bedroom, and eliminating or limiting caffeine. If your child has continuous issues with sleep, talk with their pediatrician for individualized advice.
How much sleep is enough? While everyone is different, here are the standard guidelines for how much sleep the average child should get:
- 1-2 years old: 11-14 hours (including naps)
- 3-5 years old: 10-13 hours (including naps)
- 6-13 years old: 9-12 hours
- 14-17 years old: 8-10 hours
Sometimes, it can feel hard to prioritize sleep when your family has a busy schedule. This is true for both children and adults. Let kids know that mental and physical health comes first. In most cases, the life stressor will be short-term. Talk to your child about how their health matters more than the temporary stressor and will assist them in being better able to handle stress. This doubles as a way to communicate your concern for your child’s well-being without coming across as nagging!
Start a mindfulness practice
Mindfulness is a broad term referring to the state of being conscious or aware of something. Often this pertains to being aware of the present moment or reality of a situation. Mindfulness activities include grounding and are proven to reduce stress. These activities come in many forms. Better yet, common mindfulness activities are easy, accessible, and most often free!
Explain to children that the following methods are all tools that can be used when they feel mental or physical stress. Make sure you do these mindfulness activities with your child so they understand how to use them safely.
Breathing exercises are a great option in anyone’s mental health toolkit. You can use breathing exercises anywhere, and they lower cortisol (the stress hormone) which in turn helps calm the body.
Progressive muscle relaxation
Progressive muscle relaxation is another simple but effective method. Instruct your child to tense and release each muscle group in their body one by one, starting from their toes to their head or vice versa.
Mindful stretching is a great way to relieve tension. Stretching, yoga, or meditation videos designed for children are useful for parents who aren’t sure how to guide a child themselves. Again, do this with your child if possible – it is a great bonding opportunity in addition to all of the other advantages!
Thought reframing, also known as cognitive reframing, is a tool utilized in cognitive behavioral therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy is known to relieve stress, anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns. It involves acknowledging a thought, mindfully and without judgment, and then reframing it in a more realistic and positive way, taking into account what you can and can not control.
For example, if a child is stressed out about doing well during a performance that will be judged or graded, the reframe could be, “I don’t have full control over my grade. I can only do my best, and that’s good enough. This is just one performance in the grand scheme of things.” Teaching children how to walk through their thoughts to self-soothe is valuable.
There are a number of well-known grounding techniques that are child-friendly and easy to use. Guided meditation and simple techniques like the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique or the 3-3-3 grounding technique can be helpful.
Guided meditations can be found online or via a guided meditation app for kids in the App Store on your smartphone or tablet.
If bullying is an issue, take it seriously
About 20% of children between ages 12-18 are bullied each year. Bullying is a serious issue and getting bullied increases the likelihood of developing various mental and physical health problems. Have an open conversation about bullying with your child, Let them know how to face bullies, what bullying is, all of the forms of bullying, and what to do if they notice someone else getting bullied.
StopBullying.gov is a great resource for parents who aren’t sure how to start the conversation: https://www.stopbullying.gov/resources/how-to-talk-about-bullying.
With the uptick in cyberbullying and other negative impacts of social media, it is valuable to have a conversation about social media with your child once they are old enough to use it. In addition to having conversations, it is also important to monitor your child’s interactions through social media to ensure that they are using it safely and responsibly.
Use physical activity and nature to unwind
Research shows that even a brief, ten-minute-long nature walk can reduce stress. Similarly, most, if not all, indoor and outdoor forms of physical activity are shown to decrease stress.
Indoor activities can include but are not limited to yoga, dance, sports, hula hooping, jumping rope, or active games, including active video games, if suitable for your child.
For younger children, physical activity can be as simple as going to the playground or playing with family and friends.
Active hobbies should be framed in a way that will allow them to have fun and feel good. The goal is to find something your child enjoys and add it to the day naturally rather than forcing activities that they do not enjoy.
Turn to creative hobbies
Activities such as art, listening to music, and journaling are all linked to lower stress levels and better mental health outcomes. Keep art supplies in the home, or find creative projects your child will enjoy. Art projects are available for all age groups.
If you and your child enjoy similar hobbies, such as baking, find time to do this activity together. Again, fun matters.
Gratitude journaling is also a great activity for children, who are old enough, to complete each day. Journaling is known for its positive mental health benefits.
Build a schedule – and make sure it includes free time
Productivity matters, but children, and adults alike, cannot always be productive. Does your child have a busy schedule? Do they enjoy all of their extracurricular activities? Do they have enough time to do homework and engage in other obligations, whether that’s sports, chores, theater, therapy, or something else?
Use time management skills to build a routine, and ensure your child has free time. In other words, time to “do nothing.” There should be a spot in your child’s schedule where they get to relax and choose how they spend their time. Some children struggle with procrastination, staying focused, completing tasks, or other challenges. Routines can be very helpful for children with these concerns, to aid in organization and help children build consistent healthy habits.
If your child becomes easily overwhelmed when presented with expectations or when participating in day to day activities, it may be affecting their mental or physical health. Work with your child to determine if there are simple changes that can be made to relieve some of the pressure they may be feeling.
Turn to a professional
What if stress becomes unmanageable or impacts your child’s well-being regularly? What if at-home stress reduction techniques don’t work for your child? Professional support in the form of mental health therapy can help children with stress and other concerns such as trauma, depression, ADHD, anxiety, or grief. Behaven Kids accepts Medicaid and a large range of other insurance plans to help children and their families get their needs met.
Choose Behaven Kids For Childhood Stress
Behaven Kids offers a range of evidence-based therapy options for children with a spectrum of mental health concerns, including stress, anxiety, and ADHD. These include but are not limited to child-parent therapy, individual therapy, group therapy, and family therapy.
We have multiple locations in Nebraska and also offer telehealth therapy sessions. Our goal is to help parents and their children find peace, confidence, and overall well-being. We understand that no two families or children are alike. When you work with us, we will create an individualized care plan unique to your child.
Behaven Kids is here to answer your questions. Click here to learn about our services, or call us at 1-402-926-4373.