Stress and children
Stress is an inevitable part of our modern life and it is a myth that children are immune or in some way protected from stress.
When adults are stressed, they turn to others for comfort, attend stress management seminars or simply try to work it off at the gym. When children are stressed, they have fewer avenues they can turn to for relief and help. Sometimes their cries for help are misunderstood or ignored, but stressed children always need the help of adults who can help them cope.
The word ‘stress’ is from the Latin ‘stringere’ which means ‘to draw tightly or bind.’ In the physical sciences, the term is used to define a physical force which can modify the form of a system. For example, a stick may bend when force is applied to it. Stressors in human life are psychological and social forces in the form of events or situations that exert a distorting effect on a person’s equilibrium.
Defined broadly, stress is an adverse event that causes a response from an individual. In childhood, these events include:
- Parental divorce
- Poor parent-child relationship
- Poor teacher-child relationship
- Frequent change of teachers
- Homework overload
- Lack of care and loving discipline
- Death in the family
- A new baby in the family
- Failing a test
- Struggling at school; having learning difficulties
- Having to move from one classroom to the next during the school day
- A birthday party
- High expectations from family or school
- Bullying and teasing
- Rejection from the peer group
- Intense competition with classmates
The physiological reaction to stress is known as the ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ response. This helps us survive in the face of an immediate threat to our safety. But children find it difficult to fight or flee the difficulties they face. They can’t recognise that they are under stress so they send out distress signals, including:
- Confused behaviour, associated with loss of memory or lack of focus
- Freezing – becoming quiet and withdraw
- Thoughts of suicide
Stress related physical problems appear, such as headaches, tummy aches, asthma, forgetfulness, temper tantrums, fatigue, tearfulness, fearfulness, sleep difficulties and many others. Continued stress impairs the immune system’s functioning so children’s immunity to disease and illnesses drops. They pick up infections easily and become continually tired and lethargic, despite plenty of rest.
How can stressed children be helped?
- Recognise distress signals children send out
- Realise distress signals can be misinterpreted and avoid labelling children wrongly
- Remove the source of stress from children if possible
- Be available to speak to the child about the stressor(s) and allow plenty of opportunity for the child to express fears, disquiets, anger
- Reassure children that they are not naughty or stupid or bad to feel as they do
- Help children re-learn or acquire new coping skills
- Make sure the parent-child relationship is as positive as possible
- Try to strengthen the teacher-child relationship
- Help the child cultivate friendships in and out of school
- Make sure the child has the chance to relax after school and have fun
- Seek professional help if no improvement is seen
This article was sourced from the book ‘Help your child to cope’, written by Dr Cai Yiming and Dr Daniel Fung.