Stress is a natural byproduct of adulting, but what we don’t always realize is that children and teens also experience their own stressors. Parents can help children manage stress by first understanding it’s root causes and then practicing effective stress management techniques together.
What Causes Stress in Children?
According to the American Psychological Association, stress can be caused by several factors. For young children, the most common source of stress is tension in the home. “Children may be troubled by family discord, divorce, or loss, for example. Even happy changes, such as a new home, the arrival of a new sibling, or a beloved new stepparent can be hard on a child.” School can also be a source of stress arising from academic concerns or social tensions.
For older children and teens, stressors from outside of the home increase significantly. Mental health crises are on the rise for kids 12-17, with social relationships, concerns at school, and peer pressure to conform contributing to kids’ stress levels.
Good Stress and Bad Stress
Experts note that three main types of stress can affect children: positive, tolerable, and toxic. Small, short term stress can create more resilient children, “Within the supportive environment of a caring relationship with an adult, the physiological effects of this type of stress is buffered and returns to baseline, thus, the child learns how to calm down. The result is a stronger, more resilient child who can effectively deal with stressful situations.
Positive stress is typically not a severe stressor, brief, and is managed by a caring adult.
Toxic stress, on the other hand, can be severely damaging to a child. According to Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, “Toxic stress response can occur when a child experiences strong, frequent, and/or prolonged adversity—such as physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, caregiver substance abuse or mental illness, exposure to violence, and/or the accumulated burdens of family economic hardship—without adequate adult support. This kind of prolonged activation of the stress response systems can disrupt the development of brain architecture and other organ systems, and increase the risk for stress-related disease and cognitive impairment, well into the adult years.”
Recognize Signs of Stress
The Mayo Clinic offers several signs that children may be stressed out or could use some extra support:
- Emotional outbursts or increased irritability
- Trouble sleeping
- Withdrawing from others
- Struggles with school
- Frequent headaches or stomach aches
- Increased defiance
They note that, “children’s signs of stress can vary based on age, personality and coping skills. The key is to watch for drastic or sudden changes from your children’s previous behaviors.”
Stress Management Strategies
Experts recommend several practices for successful stress management including:
- Sleep Well
- Talk it out
- Make time for fun—and quiet
- Get outside
- Write about it
- Learn mindfulness
How Parents Can Help
The Mayo Clinic recommends that parents encourage healthy stress management practices in children by:
- Establishing and keeping routines
- Finding times to talk
- Encouraging a return to previous activities
- Allowing choices
- Finding humor in daily life
- Playing as a family
- Encouraging healthy diet and sleep habits
- Practicing deep breathing together
- Enlisting help of children’s teachers
- Managing your own mental health