Identifying Childhood Stress
By: Dr. T. Jann Caison-Sorey, senior medical director at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan
Like adults, children can experience physical, mental and emotional stress that impacts how they think and act. Recognizing abnormal stress in a child can prevent him or her from developing more serious, long-term mental health issues early on and as adults.
This is especially important knowing that depression, anxiety and mood disorders were ranked number one among the top five national health conditions leading to poor health for adults in 2017.
What Causes a Child Stress?
In many cases, a child’s stress is linked to external change. Depending on age, significant life events can be difficult for children to understand and adapt to in a healthy manner.
In some cases, stress is linked to how secure or connected a child feels to his/her family. Recognizing potential stressors as a parent or guardian is one way to help prevent a child from coping adversely. Some of the most common catalysts for stress in young children include:
- Behavioral disorders among family members
- Birth/adoption of a new sibling
- Death (of a loved one or pet)
- Family circumstances/finances
- Home environment
- Substance use/abuse within family
Signs of a Stressed Child
One in five children experience stress or worry without their parent or guardian knowing. Because a child may not know how to communicate these feelings, it’s important to watch for changes in behavior and attitude. These changes may include, but are not limited to:
- Appetite changes
- Changes inattentiveness or grades at school
- Changes in sleep/nightmares
- Mood swings
- Upset stomach
Teaching Kids How to Cope
As a parent or guardian, slowly introducing change can help a young child react more positively. Whenever possible, having conversations around change before it happens gives the child a chance to ask questions, better understand and adjust to the circumstances. As they age, parents can begin introducing other methods of preventing and dealing with stress, such as:
- Family Conversations: Setting aside time in the day to talk as a family about issues, school, sports, friends or even the future can give a child the opportunity to express stress. In these conversations, it’s important to actively listen, express interest and brainstorm problem-solving techniques together.
- Freedom of Expression: Encouraging a child to engage in activities that suit his or her interests can provide a healthy outlet for stress as they age. Exploring team sports, art or musical endeavors may result in a newfound passion or lifelong hobby.
- Manageable Schedules: It’s important to establish a healthy balance of activities and downtime for children. Overscheduling can take away from the time young bodies and brains need to recharge and may even perpetuate patterns of poor time management as they age.
- Sufficient Rest: According to the National Sleep Foundation, school-aged children should get about nine to 12 hours of sleep each night. Establishing a bedtime routine is crucial for their mental and physical well-being. Americans today get 40 percent less sleep than the body needs to function at its best.
- Deep Breaths: Teaching a child simple deep breathing techniques during stressful times can become a lifelong coping mechanism for stress. This can be as simple as teaching an older toddler to count to ten when they’re feeling overwhelmed, or family yoga sessions before bedtime.
- Emergency Preparedness: Taking the time to practice emergency drills as a family can help young children handle stressful situations more calmly and anticipate change. Depending on location, evaluate potential threats (fires, tornados, etc.) and plan accordingly. It’s also smart to teach children what to do in case they are separated from an adult or family member, or feel unsafe in a public place.
Dr. T. Jann Caison-Sorey is a pediatrician, adolescent medicine physician and senior medical director at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. For more health tips, visit AHealthierMichigan.org.