Kids & Stress: Helping Them Cope

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Let him shout into a pillow if it helps. The point is, there are things a kid can do to learn how to blow off steam.

Childhood should be a wonderful time, full of carefree abandonment, exploration and growth … right?

   Well, the world is only beginning to understand the depths of kids and stress — some believe it’s not just ever-changing friendships, family pressures and so on. But no matter what, it’s up to you to help them cope.

 

DEFINING STRESS

“On a simplified scale, stress is typically what someone feels as a result of their body’s fight or flight response kicking in, in response to their current circumstances,” says Tracy Cummings, M.D., Medical Director of CCHMC Services at the Lindner Center of HOPE.

   “Evolutionarily speaking, this has been protective and meant to be a warning signal. However, this can become problematic when a person’s stress level is interfering with their day-to-day lives.”

   School is the most common source of stress for school aged children, according to Cummings. And balancing school with extra-curricular activities can contribute to a child’s stress. Add in learning to navigate relationships with both friends and family in a tech-heavy society, and it’s easy to see why a child might be overwhelmed.

 

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

“Stress can impact a person physically and emotionally,” says Cummings. “Physical symptoms that may emerge when a child is stressed can include headaches, upset stomach, fatigue (with or without sleep pattern changes), muscle tension and rapid heart rate. Emotionally, a person’s mood can become irritable, anxious, angry or even sad. They may seem more distracted than usual.” She explains that these symptoms can lead to changes in behavior such as eating more or less, withdrawing socially or not engaging in favorite activities.

   “They might demonstrate emotional outbursts or have impaired decision-making and start to engage in risky behaviors (i.e., substance use, self-injurious behavior). Over time, if not remedied, stress can lead to a decline in functioning of our immune system — rendering a person more susceptible to illness.”

 

WHERE YOU COME IN

“Childhood and adolescence is hard!” says Cummings.  “One thing to keep in mind for stressful kids is that while their circumstances may not change, they can still work to stress less over them. Mindfulness helps, i.e. knowing what’s causing the stress. If there are helpful, realistic changes that can be made, make them. If not, working to radically accept the situation for what it is can be useful, although this is a skill that is often better conceptualized by the teenage population than younger kids.”

   Cummings suggests that parents reinforce good sleep as well as nutrition and hygiene. She also recommends exercise, joining a club or volunteering, and adds that developing a support system or spiritual awareness can help. Distractions like music or crafts, or engaging in meditation or deep breathing are good. You can even encourage your child to shout into a pillow if it helps!

   “Teaching a child self-love and acceptance can go a long way in fostering resiliency. Opening up the lines of communication in the household is a simple strategy for families as it allows for recognition of potential struggles and for collaboration on how to improve situations.” Cummings says that parents should keep their own stress levels under control. Aim to model good behavior and steer clear of adding to your child’s stress.

   “Seek help if healthy coping strategies are not working, if the child cannot stop engaging in unhealthy coping strategies, or if the stress is so overwhelming that it is causing acting out behaviors, suicidal thoughts or concern for clinical depression,” says Cummings.

 

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