Just like all adults, children suffer from stress, too. Often it happens that the stresses experienced by children seem insignificant to adults. Or, worse, the parent may completely miss the fact that the child is stressed. Childhood stress can be caused by any situation that requires the child to adapt or change to a new situation. Change often produces anxiety because we don’t always know what to expect in the changed situation. You don’t have to be grown up to fear the unknown.
Stress can even be caused by positive changes, such as starting a new activity, but it is most commonly linked with negative changes such as divorce, illness or death in the family. But, because children have few previous experiences from which to learn, even situations that require small changes can have an enormous impact on a child’s feelings of safety and security.
Some parenting styles and parent expectations can be very stressful. Children want to please their parents. I know that seems like a “no-brainer.” However, those among you who treat children might now think that that everyone knows that. I have heard parents complain about their children in terms that make it sound like they believe the child is going out of his or her way to upset or defy them. And, before you object, of course some children can reach a point where they become oppositional. Usually that happens only after the child becomes resistant to being over-controlled.
Children with learning problems are often seriously stressed. They know they are not meeting their parents’ or teachers’ expectations for school success. They feel stupid and like a failure. Unfortunately, the main “job” that our children have is to succeed in school. Children learn how to respond to stress by what they have seen and experienced in the past. If the adults in their social environment are not good at dealing with stress, they are not likely to be either. Another major factor to consider is that a poor ability to deal with stress can be passed from the mother to the child during the prenatal months if the mother is very anxious or chronically stressed.
Children probably will not recognize that they are stressed. Parents may suspect stress if the child has experienced a stressful situation and begins to have physical or emotional symptoms, or both. Some behaviors or symptoms to look for can include:
- changes in eating habits
- new onset of headaches
- changes in sleep pattern (nightmares, bedwetting, middle of the night awakening, resistance to going to sleep)
- upset stomach or vague stomach symptoms
- anxiety, worries, inability to relax
- fears that are either new or return (of being alone, of the dark, of strangers or new situations)
- clinging to you
- easy tears
- aggressive, stubborn or oppositional behaviors are also possible signs of stress