You wouldn’t normally associate the carefree period of childhood with extreme stress, but the stress levels of children in the United States match those of adults, according to the American Psychological Association’s Annual Stress in America Survey.
This is not to be taken lightly, because children pay a heavy price for stress that is often neglected or unnoticed by parents and caregivers.
In fact, heavy stress may even lead to children taking their own lives. The CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics found in 2016 that suicide ranked second in the leading causes of death among young people between 10-24 years old. Of course, stress isn’t the only cause, but its prominence in today’s society certainly plays a role.
Many children exhibit signs of stress, but parents are unable to recognize them. This is troubling because chronic stress, if left untreated, can lead to a host of psychological and physical problems.
It is important for parents to make themselves available for their children and to proactively let them know that they can be approached if something is wrong.
It also helps to know what it looks like when your child or teen is stressed about something going on in their life, so you can actively engage and connect with them before it’s too late.
What Does Stress in Kids Look Like?
Stress is primarily a function of the extreme demands that are placed on an individual and their inability to meet those demands. For children, these demands can come from parents, other family members, friends, school, or even from within themselves.
Stress can also be caused by physical or sexual abuse, traumatic events, or neglectful parenting.
Here are some tips to identify possible signs of stress in young children. Adults may want to pay attention to these signs and decide if they need to help or intervene.
1. Negative Behavioral Changes
Young children find it difficult to recognize and articulate when they experience stress. In most children, stress may manifest itself as behavioral changes. Many children act out and become irritable. They may withdraw from activities that they previously enjoyed. They may experience back-to-school anxiety and refuse to attend.
In teenagers, the warning signs may include hostility towards family members. They may also avoid family get-togethers, and even suddenly drop old long-time friendships in favor of new ones.
Some of these negative behaviors may not always indicate that they are stressed, since irritability is common among teens, but they often hint that something is not right.
2. They Attempt to Communicate Using words They Know
Since children do not understand stress, they may try and communicate it verbally using words that they are familiar with, such as angry, confused, worried, etc. They may also pull themselves down saying that they are “stupid” and feel socially isolated.
Parents of young children must listen to what they are saying and communicate with them in a loving and supportive way to find out if these words are coming from a place of stress.
3. They Frequently Feel Sick
Of course, take the child to a doctor to check if the cause is indeed physical, but if the symptoms seem to persist even when the physician has not been able to find anything wrong, then stress is likely to be the reason.
Also watch if the headache or stomach ache increases before an exam – this may indicate that the child is under a significant amount of stress from academics.
Children who feel stressed or insecure may wet their beds. If accidents happen, it is important to reassure them that you are not angry with them.
Take your child to a doctor to rule out any medical condition for bed-wetting.
5. The Way They Interact With Others Changes
Some teens and young children hide their feelings well from parents, but they may act out with others. Talking regularly to teachers and parents, especially the parents of kids your child is friends with, can give you a clue.
Also talk to the school and extracurricular coaches regularly to get insights into your child’s thoughts and behaviors in different settings, and proactively identify any points of worry.
6. Increased Levels of Aggression
Many children become physically aggressive when under stress. They may hit, kick, bite, scream, or call names. They may also have no patience to complete tasks.
Extracurricular activities are usually helpful for children’s development, but when they are overwhelmed with schoolwork and other activities on top of that, they may feel overwhelmed and react with aggression.
Health Effects & Long-term Implications of Stress in Children
Under chronic stress, our body reacts in strange ways. As Harvard Health Publishing explains, when a person experience stress, the amygdala – the part of the brain that is responsible for emotional processing – sends out a distress signal to the hypothalamus.
The hypothalamus acts as a command center that controls the body through the nervous system.
Stress then triggers a fight-or-flight response in the body, which is outwardly manifested as heighted senses, rush of adrenaline, and increased heart rate.
A hormone called cortisone (popularly known as stress hormone) is released to restore the energy in the body. After the stressful event, the body returns to normal and the cortisol levels fall.
This buildup of the stress hormone in the brain can lead to long term health problems. With chronic stress, the body produces more cortisol than it releases. When the cortisol levels are high, it may impact the ability of the brain to function.
Stress attacks the synaptic mechanism that leads to cognitive impairment and lack of social skills. Stress can even kill brain cells and cause a reduction in brain volume leading to emotional deficiencies. Needless to say, this can have a devastating impact on a child’s normal long-term development.
The brain develops throughout life and early-life stress can have many consequences.
According to a study, many diseases like depression and cardio-vascular illnesses in adults can be traced back to stressful events in the childhood such as abuse and neglect. Inconsistent nurturing can also impair self-regulatory behaviors in a child.
This can lead to early onset of sexual activity, poor performance in academics, poor impulse control and decision making, and substance abuse.
The study also showed that increased obesity, inflammation, and poor health can also be the results of stress. Learning may be impaired, because stress can affect cognitive functioning and verbal ability that are important for successful learning.
Stress caused by exposure to violence in childhood can be associated with lower IQ.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have conducted studies which reveal that problems of toxic stress can affect children from all walks of life, regardless of their ethnic groups or economic backgrounds.
What Can Parents do to Help Stressed Out Children
It is important to know that you are not helpless. Parents can be a powerful nurturing and supporting force in the lives of their children. If your child is exhibiting behaviors of stress, there are many ways in which you can help them.
Communicate With Words
If it seems like your child is bothered by something, vocalize it out loud. Gently articulate what you think the child may be feeling. You could causally observe that it seems like they seem upset about something.
Ask them gently to talk about what happened at school or at their friend’s place without making it sound accusatory.
When your child talks to you, listen very closely and attentively. Show a lot of interest and patience. Show that you care so they feel secure enough to talk and share more.
Do not blame or judge.
Get the whole story out and don’t rush them. Once they finish talking, you can both figure out what would be the best way to deal with this particular cause for stress.
Help Your Child Label Their Feelings
Many young children lack the vocabulary to identify their feelings. If they seem annoyed or upset, use those words so they know that this is the name of what they are feeling.
The next time, they will be able to better communicate those feelings. When kids have words to identify and label their feelings, it leads to better emotional awareness and ability to deal with these emotions better.
Help Your Child Figure Out The Best Course of Action
If you have both identified the specific cause of stress, discuss what can be done. Point out a couple of options to deal with the situation and also help your child come up with a few ideas.
Brainstorm and congratulate them on the good ideas they have come up with. This may help them deal with the stressful situation on their own the next time.
Sometimes kids may not talk to you about what is stressing them. Don’t worry about this initial reservation.
Your responsibility as a parent or guardian is to be there for them and let them open up in their own time. Also remember that there may be some stressors that you will not be able to help them deal with on your own.
In such cases, do not hesitate to seek help. With adequate support and professional help if needed, young children and teens can overcome stress and grow up to be well-balanced adults.
About the author
Brett Farmiloe is a contributing writer for Online Counseling Programs, an online resource for mental health counseling degrees, mental health education and related professions. He also has a backyard vegetable patch and frequently contributes content to Forbes and Huffington Post.