Stress and Our Kids – Part 3 (of 5)

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stressed girl

After reviewing the dangers of too much stress and how critical it is to help our kids manage the pressures in their lives (see Parts 1 and 2 of this series), I want to take the time now to review some of the common behavioural or emotional symptoms of stress in your kids and teens.  Following that, over the next two weeks, I will outline some of the best strategies to help your children combat stress in Parts 4 and 5.

Keep in mind that beyond noticing the symptoms I list below, you need to pay attention to the severity and duration of the symptoms.  And because some of the behaviours I describe may actually be the norm for your child given different learning styles, personalities and temperaments, you need to notice if there are any unusual changes in your kids.

So, what are some of the common behavioural or emotional symptoms of stress in children?

Emotions and moods.  You may notice your kids crying more often for no obvious reasons and seem more easily out of sorts.  Or you may identify that they seem to have quick changes in mood, or become sad and withdrawn.  They may refuse to play or engage with others, and seem to get no pleasure out of play.

Activity level and attention.  Pay attention if you notice any changes in your kids’ activity level and capacity to focus.  Often with stress (and too much adrenaline), parents will notice that their child seems a lot more hyper and a lot less focused.  Or in contrast, if your child’s energy level suddenly drops and he or she appears sluggish and always tired, then you need to investigate further what’s going on.

Negative behaviours.  Some of the behaviours to watch for are frequent temper tantrums or emotional reactivity.  If your children begin to fight with their friends, or even strike out at caregivers who are trying to comfort them, then pay attention.  Or if your kids suddenly become non-compliant and seem to regress in their ability to control their anger, this can be a problem, especially if they are already over the age of 3 years and have been able to regulate their negative behaviours more effectively in the past.

Problems in eating, elimination, and sleep.  Some symptoms to look for include a refusal to eat or conversely, eating too much; losing control of their bladder during the day or at night after toilet training has occurred; sleeping more than usual or having difficulty relaxing for a nap or falling asleep at night.

Problems with relationships.  Children may show dramatic changes in how they relate to others.  They may become extremely distressed when a parent or caregiver leaves them, becoming very clingy and showing significant separation anxiety.  They may also become fearful of being alone.  Alternatively, your kids can show the opposite and appear to be indifferent, readily going to anyone, even a stranger.  Or they may isolate themselves from their friends and caregivers, showing a lack of interest in relationships they previously enjoyed.

Developmental problems.  Children may lose developmental skills they have previously mastered.  For example, a child who was toilet trained may need to go back to diapers, or a child who was speaking in sentences may revert to single words. Or a child who was able to play independently or with other children, may not be able to play alone or to socialize.  Any time you notice regression of developmental milestones they have formerly conquered, you need to take note.

Keep in mind that any of these symptoms can be signs of other problems that need to be addressed, for example, post-traumatic symptoms, depression, anxiety, or developmental disorders.  Regardless, all of these need care and attention, so make sure you take your kids to their pediatrician for an assessment.

And what about our older kids or teens?  Because teens are going through rapid hormonal changes, significant developmental adjustments and the challenge of individuating from their parents, it can be easy to dismiss their symptoms as “normal” or as just a “bad attitude” or “laziness”.  But pay attention to the ways in which your teens may be responding to stress.  For example:

  • Excessive worries, fears, and anxiety about their safety and the safety of family and friends;
  • Increased tension, restlessness, inability to relax;
  • increased fear and avoidance of any activity that involves a risk of failure, needing constant reassurance, marked feelings of self-consciousness or fears of humiliation;
  • A significant increase or decrease in time spent with friends or doing usual activities such as music, sports, and school;
  • Problems at school such as poorer grades, behaviour problems or more absences from school;
  • More difficulty concentrating or paying attention, noticeably impacting their academic performance;
  • Increase in disruptive behaviours, for example hostility, defiance, angry outbursts, aggressive or destructive actions, self-destructive behaviour and poor frustration tolerance;
  • Increased crying, sadness or depressed feelings; excessive passivity and brooding;
  • A significant drop in self-esteem, or conversely, an increase in bullying or attacking others to try to boost their self-image;
  • Changes in activity level, either becoming lethargic and always tired, or too active, impatient and agitated; and
  • Problems eating or sleeping – either eating or sleeping too much or not enough.

But beyond the emotional and behavioural changes we see in kids who are stressed, there is also a plethora of evidence that chronic stress impacts your children’s bodies in the following ways:

It weakens the body’s immune system.   As a result, the child gets sick a lot.  There’s even evidence that tumors grow faster when the immune system is down.  Every child gets sick from time to time but frequent illnesses may be a sign of too much stress.

The brain’s natural painkillers are depleted.  The brain produces a wonderful group of hormones called endorphins that block pain and make us feel good.  When we are under stress, the brain at first increases its production of endorphins to help fight the pain but when stress continues without a break, the endorphin level begins to decline and we feel more pain.  When your child complains of a lot of pain, pay attention as your child may be overstressed.  Don’t just reach for medicine because simply relieving the pain without correcting the underlying stress won’t be helpful for your child.

The brain’s natural tranquillizers are depleted.  When we feel calm, stress-free and happy, it’s because we have an abundant supply of natural tranquillizers that help keep us peaceful with a feeling of well-being.  When our kids are under chronic stress, these natural tranquillizers are diminished and they become restless, fidgety and anxious.  So pay attention to fluctuations in your children’s anxiety levels as they could indicate the presence of too much stress in their lives.

As you learn to pay attention to the possibility of stress symptoms in your kids, please keep in mind that your child is unique and how each child responds to stress will be different.  Susceptibility to stress varies greatly, even between kids in the same family – these variations are caused by differences in personality, physiology and life experiences.

I don’t have time to go into the whole area of personality as this is quite complex but I do want to make the point that different personalities will find different things stressful; for example, an introvert will find too much social interaction stressful, whereas a true extrovert may find too much alone time stressful.  The most important distinction I want to make around personality for the purpose of stress is that of Type A and Type B personalities.  While many of us are a combination of the two, the more Type A you have in you, the more prone you will generally be to stress because of the more intense physiological responses you will have to events around you.

But our physiology is as important as personality is in determining a child’s susceptibility to stress.  Physical health, for example, affects how well children handle stress and that’s why you’ve probably noticed how a child who’s normally calm can become cranky and out of sorts when he or she is ill.  When your kids are sick, you need to allow for plenty of allowances for your kids.  During those times, make special efforts to reduce the stress your child is exposed to, but also try to bolster his or her resources for coping.  Kids who are under the weather need plenty of rest, nutritious food, and moderate but not over-stimulating exercise; they should also steer clear of excess sugar and caffeine and avoid activities that trigger excess adrenaline.

But even healthy kids will vary in their physical reaction to stress.  Some kids are just programmed to react more dramatically than others to stress — they respond to a challenge or threat with high excitement and energy.  While this can be advantageous in the world because they can be quite successful, these kids can also pay a price in greater stress.

Even so, while your kids may be genetically predisposed to over-respond, they can learn to regulate their physical and emotional responses.  They can also learn to accept that their stress tolerance is more easily compromised than other kids, and make adjustments to their activities and life style accordingly.  More about strategies to cope with stress in Parts 4 and 5, coming soon!



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