Often we consider stress a manifestation of our adult lives from pressures of money, relationships, families and it is easy to ignore signs of stress and anxiety in children.
What do children have to be stressed about? Children have their own share of daily demands and when things don’t go as smoothly or their daily routine is disrupted or things change, they can feel unsettled. Children as young as two can feel stress and anxiety very acutely.
There might be several reasons for this. Stress is our inability to meet demands that are placed on us, and this can sometimes be created internally by a chasm between what we think we should be doing versus what are capable of doing. Children can feel anxiety from stressful social situations, academic pressures or in form of separation from parents and carers. They might also be affected by world news or changes in their family situations and routines, such as moving house, starting new school, friends moving away, family celebrations and visitors.
Often children can find it difficult to vocalise emotions, particularly complex ones such as worry because they do not yet have a complex vocabulary. Often they do not know or have the tools to understand these worries. As parents and carers, we can tell them that “it will all be ok”, but it doesn’t help relieve the anxiety.
Signs and symptoms of stress in children may include a loss of appetite, mood swings, loss of concentration. There might be a sudden change in personality, and the child can become withdrawn, violent, aggressive, or uncommunicative. Younger children can become more clingy or start sucking their thumb, picking their nose or bedwetting. Older children might start bullying other children, or lose focus and self-motivation, and have a noticeable drop in academic performance.
No two children are the same and these signs and symptoms will vary according to the child’s personality and circumstances. I remember my eldest unable to sleep when she was six or seven years old because she was worried about house fires, and couldn’t swim in the sea or the pool for some time because of her fear of anacondas. This was immediately after we had moved from India to the UK and she was adapting to a completely new life alone with me as a single parent, and the stress and anxiety was manifesting itself into these fears.
Research from American Psychological Association has shown that it is extremely important for parents to carve out quality time with their children everyday where they can talk about their school and lives in a relaxed and calm manner. Plan and prepare a children beforehand and talk to them about any stressful situations, change in routine, any social gatherings, and help them understand what to expect.
Calm reassurance can help so that children understand that worries can be a part of everyday life, and things will change. Lots of hugs, cuddles and kisses will soothe any separation anxiety in a toddler. By staying emotionally connected to our child, and talking to them regularly, we can help them develop flexibility and self-regulation so that they can build resilience and the ability to bounce back from setbacks.
Meditation, mindfulness and yoga can all give children the tools to recognise triggers, learn how to breathe and achieve calmness when they feel anxious. Exercise and hobbies also help children regain self-confidence and be more comfortable in social situations.
There is also good stress. Normal worries and stress are part of every childhood. It is important to help children understand that worries are normal, everyone gets worried, and that it helps to talk about them. Normal stress promotes healthy growth, coping skills, resilience and the ability to make mistakes and bounce back from them. It is when the stress becomes toxic that it manifests into acute anxiety and depression.
As parents, it is also our responsibility to look after our own mental health and wellbeing, as our stress can have a huge impact on our children’s health. Children can get stressed if they notice a lot of stress around them in the family, and especially if they see a parent who is stressed.
Stresses, worries and anxieties can have a huge impact on children’s mental and physical wellbeing. Prolonged exposure to stress can have a huge impact on our brains and cause long-term damage in developing brains. It can affect their self-esteem and confidence, and can stop them from attempting new things and being scared of unfamiliar situations, all of which should be part of a normal growing-up experience.