Stress & Anxiety
It's easy to think that without work, bills and other grown-up responsibilities, children have little to be stressed or worried about - but that's just not the case. Children experience stress and anxiety too, in their own ways. Most times, a little bit of stress is normal, even helpful. For example, being worried about a test can motivate your teen to study more, and being nervous around strangers can help keep your young child safe.
But when stress and anxiety become prolonged, it can have a serious physical as well as emotional toll on your child. Remember that as a parent, you can't solve every problem, but you can be watchful for signs of unresolved stress so that you're able to talk with your child about ways he or she can relax and ease anxiety.
Also keep in mind that you know your child better than anyone, so if you suspect a serious problem, get help.
For psychiatric emergencies, call Mission Children's Hospital at 828-213-4055.
Signs of Unresolved Stress in Children
Children may not always know that they're stressed or how to tell you if they are. If you think your child may be anxious about something or going through a stressful time, keep an eye out for the following symptoms.
- Decreased appetite, other changes in eating habits
- New or recurrent bedwetting
- Sleep disturbances
- Upset stomach or vague stomach pain
- Other physical symptoms with no physical illness
Emotional or behavioral symptoms
- Inability to relax
- New or recurring fears (fear of the dark, fear of being alone, fear of strangers)
- Clinging, unwilling to let you out of sight
- Inability to control emotions
- Aggressive behavior
- Stubborn behavior
- Regression to behaviors that are typical of an earlier developmental stage
- Unwillingness to participate in family or school activities
To help your child work through a stressful situation, here are a few strategies to keep in mind:
- Create a caring and safe home environment. Your child should be able to count on home being a place that's safe, secure, familiar and consistent.
- Monitor TV watching. Be selective about which television programs your children watch, including news broadcasts. Violence on TV - both real and fictional - can produce fear and anxiety, especially in young children. Talk to your kids about what they see on TV, and try to help them put real world events in perspective.
- Spend calm, relaxed time together. Even though schedules are busy, try to spend interactive time with your kids every day. Let them know that they're always a priority.
- Encourage questions. Let your child know that you're available to answer any questions they may have and that you won't judge them or think they're being silly.
- Help them put fear and anger into words. Many times, being able to find the right words to express feelings can help children put their emotions into perspective. Teach them how to voice concerns, worries and fears in a way that's healthy and productive.
- Listen without being critical. Resist the urge to judge or lecture. While there are many conversations that can be teachable moments, realize that sometimes all your kids need is a friendly ear. Let them know you're interested in what they're saying and that you understand how they feel.
- Build your child's feelings of self-worth. Use encouragement and affection. Try to involve your child in situations where he or she can succeed.
- Be positive. Try to use positive encouragement and reward instead of punishment.
- Empower your child. Allow your child opportunities to make choices and have some control in his or her life. This is particularly important, because research shows that the more people feel they have control over a situation, the better their response to stress will be.
- Encourage physical activity. Exercise is a natural mood lifter, and children should be getting at least 60 minutes of physical activity a day.
- Know what situations and events are stressful for children. These include new experiences, fear of unpredictable outcomes, unpleasant sensations, unmet needs or desires, and loss.
- Recognize signs of unresolved stress. Every child will respond to stress in his or her own way, so pay attention to the cues your child gives during stressful times. Doing so will help you be able to pinpoint the cause and help address it.
- Keep your child informed. If you suspect a big change on the horizon, like a move or change in job, talk with your child about it.
- Seek professional help or advice when signs of stress do not decrease or disappear. If talking and spending time with your child doesn't seem to help, try talking to their school counselor, pediatrician, pastor or other professional who may be able to help. For psychiatric emergencies, call Mission Children's Hospital at 828-213-4055.
What Children Can Do to Relieve Stress
An open, accepting flow of communication in families helps reduce anxiety and depression in children. Encourage your children to discuss their emotions and help them discuss simple ways to change the stressful situation or their response to it.
Below are some tips you can share with your child to help manage and reduce stress:
- Talk about your problems. Even if you don't feel comfortable talking about them with a parent, try talking to someone else that you can trust.
- Try to relax. Listen to calm music. Take a warm bath. Close your eyes and take slow deep breaths. Take some time for yourself. If you have a hobby or favorite activity, give yourself time to enjoy it.
- Exercise - aim for an hour a day. Exercise really does make you feel better by reducing stress.
- Set realistic expectations. Do your best, and remember that nobody is perfect.
- Learn to love yourself and respect yourself. Respect others. Be with people who accept and respect you.
- Remember that drugs and alcohol never solve problems.
- Ask for help if you are having problems managing your stress.
Children's Mental Health Facts
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services - Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
Child and Adolescent Mental Health
National Institute of Mental Health