Stressed Kids

Stressed kids are at risk of experiencing child problems, which contributes further to child stress. These include learning problems and social, emotional and behavioral difficulties.

In addition, child problems contribute to parenting stress, as parents worry about their children and wonder how to help.

Is your child feeling overwhelmed and stressed? Do you wonder how to help stressed kids cope and deal more effectively with stress? You are not alone. Children, like adults experience stress. They meet stress at school as they work to learn and succeed academically. Family problems like divorce, addiction or parental conflict also cause stress in children.

So do stressed parents. When parents feel stressed, their children pick up on their stress and feel stressed too.

Overscheduled and hurried lives also contribute to stress in children. Many children, like their parents, feel pressured and rushed. They hurry to get dressed in the morning, to eat breakfast and arrive at daycare or school on time. They may feel pressured and stressed by the social, academic and behavioral challenges at school.

When the school day ends, children rush home to complete homework, take lessons, attend extra curricular activities, eat dinner and prepare for the next day. Many stressed kids must also deal with family stress, from stressed and upset parents to family conflict and problems.

Some stressed kids experience social or relationship stress. They have difficulty fitting in and getting along with peers or coping with siblings and parents at home. Other children have problems dealing with their emotions, and may feel angry or anxious and upset.

Some stressed kids have difficulty controlling their behaviors and exhibit behavior problems at home and at school. These problems, contribute further to stress in children, which, in turn, increases parenting stress.

Why Do We Need to Help Stressed Kids?

When children lack healthy coping strategies they are at increased risk of developing emotional and behavioral problems. Some of the risks stressed kids face include:

  1. Child Problems: Unresolved, ongoing and chronic stress is as damaging for children as it is for adults. Stress in children, like stress in adults, increases the risk for physiological and psychological problems. Children who experience high levels of unresolved stress are at greater risk of developing health problems. Studies also indicate poor psychological outcomes for stressed children who lack appropriate coping strategies. These include learning, emotional, behavioral and social concerns.

  2. Living and Psychological Problems as Adults: When children rely on maladaptive coping behaviors to deal with stress, they become habitual: a part of the child's personality and characteristic way of responding. Without intervention these behaviors are likely to remain with the child as an adult. Maladaptive coping strategies, first learned in childhood, contribute to adult problems, including personal, work and relationship concerns. How well children cope with the stresses and challenges of their lives lays the foundation for how well they will cope as adults.

  3. Increased Risk for Mental Health Problems: Unresolved, ongoing and negative stress increases the risk that highly stressed children will develop serious psychological or mental health concerns. Research, for example, suggests that children who experience high levels of negative stress are at increased risk for depression.

How Do Children Benefit from Help to Manage Stress?

Despite the damaging effects of stress in children, there is good news. Children who cope well with stress do better in life than children who rely on maladaptive coping behaviors. Teaching children how to manage stress helps to inoculate them against negative stress effects, and holds enormous preventative potential. Children who cope well with stress not only do better, but because they do better, they are at decreased risk of developing child problems or mental health concerns.

Furthermore, the behaviors or traits that resilient or psychologically competent children exhibit, reflect positive coping skills or sound stress management techniques. Resilient children are high risk children who do well despite difficult circumstances during their early years. Among other characteristics, resilient children possess good problem solving or coping skills. Positive coping skills comprise the foundation of sound stress management programs for adults and children.

Children who possess positive coping strategies not only cope better with stress, but they are less likely to succumb to its negative effects.

Help for Stressed Kids

Use the strategies outlined below to help you reduce stress in children and teach them positive coping behaviors.

1. Preventative Techniques: Focus on the child's physical well being: for example, good nutrition and enough sleep. Provide opportunities for the child to talk to a caring adult and share his/her feelings. Children who express their feelings in a healthy way cope better with stress.

Let the child know you care through praise, love and attention. Provide children with time to relax and just be. Reduce busy schedules and stressful situations. Stressed kids benefit from physical exercise and time to play and unwind.

2. Symptom Reduction: When children confront stressful situations teach them how to reduce stress symptoms: for example, how to relax and calm down through deep breathing techniques and stretching. Help the child move from a highly emotional state to a more rational one: encourage them to take a brief time out to think the issue through and apply their coping skills.

3. Teach Children Problem Solving Techniques: Children who know how to solve problems cope better with stress.

4. Reduce Stress at Home: Address family problems. Family stress contributes to stress in children. Stressed kids who are experiencing family problems like family conflict and the tension of parental addiction need support and help to develop adaptive coping strategies. Create a calm, relaxed environment, with consistent and regular routines and supportive caring family interactions. Have fun as a family. Take time to laugh and enjoy being together.

5. Teach Children Adaptive Coping Strategies: Teach children how to handle the everyday stress of their lives: for example, relaxation techniques, positive self talk and problem solving skills. Visualization or role play techniques can also help prepare the child for stressful situations (e.g. a visit to the doctor or dentist).

6. Be a Good Role Model: Model healthy coping strategies. Take care of yourself and make sure you are handling stress appropriately. If you are experiencing high levels of stress get support to help you cope with the challenges and stress of your own life.

Don't forget, unless we support stressed kids and teach them healthy coping behaviors they are at risk of developing child problems.

If you are worried about stressed kids, or high levels of stress in a child,  contact a child psychologist. A psychologist can help determine how well a child is coping, and to what extent stress is contributing to child problems.

Dr. O'Connor, a Toronto psychologist, offers psychological assessments to help "get to the root" of the child problem, including an understanding of the stressors that are contributing and maintaining it. The psychological assessment also leads to evidence based solutions to help reduce these negative stressors, and promote positive outcomes in the child.