Tanni Haas, Ph.D.
How can you tell if your kids are overwhelmed by stress or are just experiencing some minor challenges that they’re coping with in a healthy manner? How do you know if the stress they are experiencing has reached the level where it has become a real problem? Experts agree that you should pay close attention to the following physical, behavioral, and communicative symptoms of stress:
Child psychologist Dr. Michele Borba says that seriously stressed kids frequently complain about various physical pains, including headaches, neck aches, backaches, and stomachaches, and often suffer from a variety of gastro-intestinal problems, including constipation, diarrhea and nausea. They also often feel lightheaded and experience changes in appetite – either a lack of appetite or overeating.
Stressed kids often have trouble falling asleep and when they finally do fall asleep they often have nightmares. Heidi Murkoff, the author of the best-selling What to Expect When You’re Expecting book series, says that “sudden changes in your child’s sleep pattern can be a red flag that he’s feeling stressed. Kids who are overly worried may be unable to fall asleep or have trouble staying asleep, leading to night terrors, sleepwalking, or a refusal to sleep alone.” Kids who are stressed are often tired and because of their persistent lack of sleep, they tend to get sick more often than other kids.
Kids often exhibit different physical symptoms of stress. It’s important to be on the look-out for multiple symptoms that seem to go together, since these could be an indication that your kids are suffering from serious stress.
While it’s important to be on the look-out for physical symptoms of stress, it’s also important to pay close attention to possible behavioral symptoms. Dr. Borba says that common behavioral symptoms include restlessness, irritability, moodiness, forgetfulness, confusion, and problems with focusing on a task for a sustained period of time. Kids who suffer from acute stress also tend to develop new worries, anxieties, and outright fears over time. In turn, says Mrs. Murkoff, “Children who feel stressed sometimes try to soothe themselves with repetitive behaviors like nail-biting, hair-twisting, or skin-scratching.”
Some stressed kids have a difficult time controlling their emotions, act out, and engage in aggressive behaviors like throwing tantrums or fighting with family and friends. Other kids regress, developing dependent, baby-like behaviors, including excessive crying or whining. Still other kids withdraw from the social activities they used to enjoy and are unwilling to interact with family or friends. “A sure sign of something being wrong with your child,” says child psychologist Dr. Robert Myers, “is if they start to lose interest in their friends.”
In school, stressed kids have a difficult time focusing on the task at hand. Their minds often go blank when called upon by the teacher and they perform poorly academically. They ask to stay home from school or claim to be sick so they can leave school early.
“A sure sign of something being wrong with your child is if they start to lose interest in their friends.”
Dr. Robert Myers
Dr. Borba says it’s especially important to pay attention to the behavioral symptoms that really young kids exhibit since they often have a difficult time putting their feelings into words. Mrs. Murkoff agrees: since young kids can’t explain what’s bothering them, parents need to become “behavioral detectives, tuning into changes that are likely triggered by stress.”
Licensed clinical social worker Jay Rosenstein encourages parents to pay close attention to the language their kids use to describe themselves and how they feel, and then to talk to them about it in more detail. For example, when a kid says “everyone hates me,” parents often imagine the worst-case scenario. Yet, the reality might be that s/he is being lightly teased by another kid at school which could easily be addressed by contacting the teacher. On the other hand, statements such as “I feel trapped” could be a cause for real alarm.
The point is that you cannot always tell from the statements alone whether your kids are seriously stressed and in need of professional intervention, or whether the issue is fairly small and easily solved. Instead of either overreacting or dismissing what your kids say about how they feel, Mr. Rosenstein suggests sitting down with your kids and talking to them about how they are doing: “Kids come home from school and go upstairs to their rooms and close the door and spend the night on the computer. A parent often has no idea what’s really going on for that child behind a closed door. Keep the lines of communication open with your kids and make room and time for connection.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tanni Haas is a Professor in the Department of Communication Arts, Sciences & Disorders at the City University of New York – Brooklyn College.