The symptoms of stress in children may include:
- more school absences than usual
- pain such as headaches, stomachaches
- worsening of chronic illness
- lowered self-esteem
- loss of interest in activities that the child used to enjoy
- change in appetite or sleep pattern
- decline in academic performance
In middle childhood, pressures may come from a number of sources-from within the child himself, as well as from parents, teachers, peers and the larger society in which the child lives. Pressure can take many forms that challenge children and to which they must respond and adapt. Whether these are events of lasting consequence like divorce of their parents, or merely a minor hassle like losing their homework, these demands or stresses are a part of children's daily existence.
Children welcome some events and are able to adapt to them with relative ease. They perceive other events as threats to their own or the family's daily routines or general sense of well-being, and these stresses are more troublesome. Most stress faced by children is neither welcomed nor seriously harmful, but rather a part of accomplishing the tasks of childhood and learning about themselves.
Youngsters may also worry about making friends, succeeding in school, combating peer pressure or overcoming a physical impairment. If stress is too intense or long-lasting, it can sometimes take a toll on the child. Clusters of stressful events seem to predispose children to illness. Major events, especially those that forever change a child's family, like the death of a parent, can have lasting effects on children's psychological health and well-being. Minor daily stresses can also have consequences. They can contribute to loss of sleep or appetite. Children may become angry or irritable or their school results may suffer. Their behavior and their willingness to co-operate may change.
How children cope with stress
Children's temperaments vary and thus they are quite different in their ability to cope with stress. Some are easygoing by nature and adjust easily to events and new situations while others are thrown off balance by changes in their lives. All children improve in their ability to handle stress if they previously have succeeded in managing challenges and if they feel they have the ability and the emotional support of family and friends. Children who have a clear sense of personal competence, and who feel loved and supported, generally do well.
A child's age and development help determine how stressful a given situation may be. Being short in height may be a minor issue for a 5 or 6-year-old boy but a source of daily embarrassment for an adolescent. How a child perceives and responds to stress depends in part on development, in part on experience, and in part on a child's individual temperament. Ironically, many parents believe that their school-age children are unaware of the stresses around them and are somehow immune to them.
Children are very sensitive to the changes around them, especially to the feelings and reactions of their parents, even if those feelings are not communicated directly in words. If a parent loses a job, children will have to adjust to their family's financial crisis; they must deal not only with the obvious family budgetary changes but also with the changes in their parents' emotional states. Children may have to cope with a move to a new neighborhood, a parent's serious illness or the disappointment of a poor sports performance. They might feel a constant, nagging pressure to dress the right way, or to achieve the high grades that can put them on the fast track toward the right college.
It is believed that today's middle-years youngsters actually are faced with more stress than the children of previous generations were and have fewer social supports available. The change in family structure from the large, supportive, extended families (including both parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents) of previous generations, to the present high incidence of divorced families, single-parent families and step-families has drastically altered the experience of childhood.
Even in intact and stable families, the growing number of households with two working parents often forces children to spend more time in after-school programmes or at home alone. For some children this loss of time with their parents is quite stressful. So is the responsibility for caring for themselves and the family home and sometimes for overseeing a younger sibling after school.
Today's children are also being raised in an era in which they are exposed to violence and peer pressure about sexual activity and drug use and are warned to be cautious about kidnapping, sexual abuse and other crimes. This sense that they are living in an unsafe world is a constant source of stress for some children. In short, today's youngsters are regularly confronted with challenges to their coping skills and often are expected to grow up too fast.
Is all stress bad?
Not all stress is bad. Moderate amounts of pressure imposed by a teacher or a coach, for example, can motivate a child to keep her performance up in school or to participate more fully in athletic activities. Successfully managing stressful situations or events enhances a child's ability to cope in the future.
What you can do to help your child:
- Try to identify the source of the stress and then solve the problem together about how to best manage the stress.
- Let the child talk about stressful events or changes. The support and understanding provided can help the child manage stress.
- Let the child make simple decisions when appropriate.
- Because stress often makes a child feel powerless, help children by showing them that they have control over certain parts of life. For example, let the child decide what to have for dinner or how to spend the day.
- Encourage children to do as well as they can, but try not to pressure them or make them feel that you will be very disappointed if they don't do well.
- Help them to balance their time and to allow time for exercise, rest, staying in touch with friends and going out and having fun.
- Encourage them to do something active when they feel really stressed, such as go for a run or play an energetic game.
Disclaimer: This content including advice provides generic information only. It is in no way a substitute for qualified medical opinion. Always consult a specialist or your own doctor for more information. NDTV does not claim responsibility for this information.