Stress can present differently in children than adults, which can make it difficult for parents and teachers to identify. Children may lack the understanding or vocabulary to adequately express how they feel.
“You recognize stress in children through their behaviors and actions, not necessarily by them telling an adult they feel stressed,” says Purdue University Global faculty member Lakieshia Jones, MS. She teaches undergraduate psychology and has a master’s in family studies.
To help children manage stress, it first needs to be recognized, Jones says. Read on to learn about the effects of stress on children and how to reduce children’s stress and frustration.
What Causes Childhood Stress?
When you notice an adverse change in a child’s personality, it’s important to determine what might be triggering that behavior. Jones says some common causes of stress in childhood include:
- Interpersonal struggles with peer groups
- Changing schools
- Falling grades
- The inability to juggle schoolwork and extracurricular activities
- Shifting home life dynamics, such as the birth of a new sibling or a divorce
- Self-esteem issues
According to a report published in Clinical Psychology Review, neglectful parenting can cause stress-related psychological responses throughout the child’s life. Childhood events that lead to long-term and severe stress are referred to as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).
“Some examples of ACEs include chronic abuse, growing up in severe poverty, or living with a parent who has a mental illness,” says Jones. “These circumstances can be very stressful for children, especially if they don’t have the words to express their feelings about the situation.”
When Is Intervention Needed?
All children experience some degree of stress, but at what point is stress considered toxic? Toxic stress refers to stress that is prolonged and excessive, often stemming from ACEs.
Severe stress in children may require intervention in the form of professional mental health services. According to Jones, the support of a parent, mentor, or mental health professional can provide stability to children who are experiencing stress. “Even children who are in traumatic situations can learn to manage their stress with the right support system,” she says.
Regardless of where the stress is coming from, it’s important for all children to learn how to effectively navigate stressful events. “By learning how to harness stress, children may become more resilient, gain confidence, and adapt to change more easily,” says Jones.
Effects of Prolonged Childhood Stress
When left unchecked, stress can have a variety of negative effects on children. According to the American Psychological Association, some signs of stress in kids include:
- Sudden changes in behavior
- Changes in sleeping or eating patterns
- Neglecting responsibilities
- Frequent illness
“Stress can present itself in different ways,” says Jones. “You may notice that your child is not eating at all or that they’re overindulging. They may have problems falling asleep or sleeping for longer periods than usual. When you notice a drastic change in behavior, that usually means it’s time to intervene.”
Without intervention, prolonged stress can lead to a range of social and health problems. For example, poor nutrition can potentially develop into diabetes as the child gets older. If a child is exposed to domestic violence, they may have difficulty making friends because they do not have models of healthy relationships in the home.
Helping Children Reduce Their Stress and Frustration
Some of the most impactful things adults can do for stressed children include asking them what’s wrong and listening to their answers. “Once the adult understands where the stress is coming from, only then will they be able to help,” says Jones.
Identifying stressors in children requires practicing attentive listening and exhibiting patience. You can foster a good conversational environment by asking the child open-ended questions that require a more detailed response than “yes” or “no.” Encouraging the child to speak freely about what’s bothering them may even help them come up with potential solutions to the problem.
Continue to foster a supportive and understanding environment. “If children are seeing negative relationships in their household, that is likely to carry over into their adulthood,” says Jones. “Children need to have positive, attentive adults in their lives who can provide support when needed.”
Stress Management Tips for Kids and Teens
If you’re trying to help a child in your life through a stressful situation, consider the following stress management techniques:
- Teach children to be aware of their breathing. Stress is both physiological and psychological. Breathing deeply brings more oxygen to the brain and can lower the negative effects of stress hormones.
- Remind children that they still have control over their lives. Feeling as though you have a loss of control is commonly associated with stress. While kids may not always be able to control the emotional response they have to a situation, they can control the actions they take.
- Teach children to be aware of how their body reacts to stress. Do their palms sweat? Does their eye start to twitch? By helping children recognize the early symptoms of stress, you can come up with a plan of what to do when these symptoms appear.
- Provide downtime for children. Many children do not have time to relax and reflect on how they are feeling. Encourage your child to engage in relaxing, low-energy activities every day.
Learn How to Support Children Through Mental Health Challenges
When children experience strong emotions, it’s incredibly helpful for them to have someone at home or in the school system that they can trust. “It’s really about being able to connect with children in a way that allows them to express themselves, even if they’re not able to do it clearly,” Jones says. “Pay attention to their behaviors and be proactive if you think the child is exhibiting signs of stress.”
If you’re interested in a career that allows you to make a lasting impact on children’s mental health, you might want to consider earning a degree in psychology. Purdue Global’s online Bachelor of Science in Psychology program teaches you how to apply psychological principles to a range of behavioral and emotional issues. Request information today to learn more.