Stress is a normal part of daily life, and children and teens are not immune. Whether it is pressure from family, problems at home or with friends, the amount of schoolwork, extracurricular activities or even social media, children and teens are experiencing higher levels of stress. While some day-to-day stress is normal, chronic and/or prolonged stress can be harmful to their health.
A 2013 survey by the American Psychological Association (APA) found that 83% of teens reported, “school was a significant or somewhat significant source of stress.” In 2018, another survey by APA found that people ages 15-21 reported significant stress around social issues, including gun violence and school shootings, rising suicide rates, climate change, treatment of immigrants and sexual harassment. Children today face serious stressors, if left unmanaged they can affect both mental and physical health.
Stress can manifest differently from child to child. There is no single sign that can immediately indicate your child is experiencing stress and may need help. Look for these signs and symptoms if you believe your child or teen is under an unhealthy amount of stress:
• Hesitation to go to school or “being lazy” to get ready for school
• Complaints of stomachache, headaches, muscle tension, feeling sick
• Difficulty and/or inability to initiate and/or complete tasks
• Irritability and/or difficulty managing emotions
• Avoidant behaviors such as being distant from peers and less talkative, taking longer than usual with homework or engaging less in school-related tasks
• Inability to relax
• Clinging behavior or seeking constant reassurance
• Sleep disturbances
Keep in mind, not all stress is bad and small amounts of stress can be helpful in teaching children the importance of resilience and adaptability. It also challenges them (in a good way) to find solutions to difficult situations or problems. However, there is a fine line between good stress and the type of stress that can be detrimental to a child’s health.
To help your child manage stress, teach them positive coping skills or tactics to help them move through the problem such as:
• Reframe situations
Try de-catastrophizing the problem by adding something positive to the situation. For example, “this will never work out” can be reframed as “change is slow, but it is possible, one step at the time.” This teaches children that even when things do not go the way they had anticipated, there is still some good that can come from it.
• Label feelings
This is helpful at all ages, but especially with youngsters or when your child is having difficulty managing their emotions. Some behaviors such as temper tantrums, withdrawal and sleep/eating disturbances can occur due to the inability to identify and/or express emotions. Ask your child “what made you feel that way?” and “what would make you feel better?”
• Use problem-solving skills
This involves identifying the problem, looking for likely solutions, deciding which solution is best and implementing the chosen option to resolve the problem. This process takes time but guiding your child through it is a great learning experience that they can use in a wide range of situations throughout the rest of their lives.
• Engage in relaxing activities
Downtime can be anything from physical activity to drawing to having a nice and relaxing bath. Let your child choose an activity where the only purpose is to relax and have fun!
• Practice mindfulness
This means being fully present in the moment without judgment, rather than dwelling on the past or anticipating the future. Mindfulness can be practiced through short pauses in the day by thinking deeply about sounds, smells and sensations you are experiencing. Practice mindfulness with your child by asking them to pause and carefully describe what they are hearing, smelling, seeing and feeling in the moment.
• Promote quality sleep
Sleep is related to irritability, anxiety, difficulty concentrating, and memory problems. Establishing a good night routine, reducing the number of lights at night, ensuring adequate room temperature and using the bed only for sleep, can be key components for quality sleep. Keep in mind most teens need approximately 8 to 10 hours of sleep each night.
It is impossible to eliminate stress from your child’s life. However, by providing them with tools to manage stress they will learn how to cope and recover from challenges and grow into resilient adults.
If you feel your child needs professional help managing their stress levels, consider mental health counseling. At Healthcare Network’s Center for Psychology and Wellness, children and adults can receive traditional therapy sessions with a highly trained behavioral health provider. Call 239. 658.3000 or visit HealthcareSWFL.org to learn more.
About the Author
Dr. Gisel Mendez-Cordero is a clinical psychologist with experience working with pediatric patients at Healthcare Network, a nonprofit organization committed to ensuring primary healthcare is accessible to everyone in our community. Celebrating 45 years of care, Healthcare Network has locations throughout Collier County. For more information, please call 239.658.3000 or visit HealthcareSWFL.org.