What is stress?
Simply put, stress is what a person feels when they are worried or uncomfortable with something. The symptoms of stress can be physical or emotional.
What causes stress?
Stressors are what cause stress. Stressors can come from outside (family situations, schoolwork, friends, illness of others), and stressors can come from inside (setting a high expectation for yourself). Stressors can be temporary like running late to school, or they can be severe, like a natural disaster, family loss, or community violence. It’s important to remember that stressors change from person to person. What stresses one child may not stress out another.
Stress is not always bad
Adults and children can experience good stress and bad stress. Both types of stress can have a physical and emotional impact on the body. Your child may show certain behaviors when they experience each type of stress.
Bad stress: Your child may feel worried, angry, frustrated, scared, cranky, or afraid, and if stressful feelings keep going over time or are intense, it can cause their body to react. Intense or sudden stressful events might cause a stomach ache, headache, muscle tension, heart racing, or increased breathing rate.
If your child experiences continued or longer-term stress, they might show symptoms like having trouble sleeping, nightmares, grinding their teeth, tantrums, feeling depressed, or school issues. Bad stress can also cause eating too much or not eating enough, trouble paying attention, or being forgetful.
Good stress: Has your child ever had to present a project in front of their class? Did they complain of getting butterflies in their stomach or sweaty palms? These can be signs of good stress. This type of stress sometimes helps move tasks along. For example, a little anxiety or pressure to complete a project may encourage your child to be better prepared in advance and get their work done. Good stress can help your child build resilience and learn how to manage their time and commitments.
A busy lifestyle can also cause stress. Sometimes when your child has a lot going on, like multiple after-school activities (clubs, athletics, chores, working), it can be overwhelming. On the other hand, if your child has issues that bother them a little, a balanced amount of activity might be relaxing. You can gauge what type of stress your child is experiencing by talking to your child about if they feel overwhelmed by how busy they are.
How does stress affect moods?
How a child emotionally copes with stress can depend on age, experiences, circumstances, and personality. Many children feel anxious, worried, or sad when they are in stressful situations. Children also deal with stress in part by what they see from adults around them. When their family is calm and confident during high-stress periods, it can be reassuring for children and have a positive impact on their emotions. It’s important to remember that in every situation, everyone reacts differently, and their feelings may change over time.
How does stress affect the body?
Some common examples of stressors and the body’s reaction to the stress:
- Stomach ache: Has your child ever complained of a stomach ache before going to school or during a test?
- Trouble sleeping: Has your child ever had trouble sleeping when something is on their mind or have so much homework pending?
- Headache: Has your child ever been so worried about something that they had a terrible headache?
- Nervousness: Has your child ever been afraid they wouldn’t do well on a school project, and complained they felt their heart racing? Maybe they chewed at their nails?
- Loss of appetite: Has your child ever heard an argument and didn’t feel like eating afterward?
How can I help my child handle stress?
Children often have a hard time coping with stress and can get overwhelmed. Your family can take steps to provide stability and support that help young people feel better. You can use SELF: Sleep, Exercise, Leisure (fun), and Food to help your child cope with stress in a healthy way.
- Sleep: Encourage your child to get a good amount of sleep, turn off devices one hour before bedtime and keep a solid sleep schedule.
- Exercise: Exercise is proven to boost moods and can help children reduce stress levels and build emotional resilience. Children should be physically active for 60 minutes every day. They can exercise in 5 or 10-minute increments several times a day or play for 30-60 minutes once or twice per day.
- Leisure: Balance school and play.
- Food: Help your child eat balanced meals and healthy snacks.
One way to reduce stress individually and together is to practice mindfulness techniques. The mind and the body are very connected. If you can help your child calm their body, it will calm their mind as well. You can teach your child how to do deep breathing exercises when they feel especially stressed or anxious. Take a deep breath, hold it for 10 seconds, and slowly release it. Other ways to practice mindfulness include listening to a guided meditation podcast together or keeping a daily journal in which each member of your family writes down what they are grateful for each day. Try to find something your family enjoys and do it at least once per day.
Now that you have the foundation of what stress is, what causes it, and some basic tips on managing it, you can start to help your child with their daily stressors.