A child’s life may seem very simple – no pressure to maintain work/life balance, no bills to pay, no insecurities towards stability & future. Just because such problems/situations don’t exist in their life at the moment, doesn’t mean kids don’t get stressed.
When kids learn new skills, or have fresh experiences, they feel a certain amount of stress. This is normal and is a part of learning, also called as the ‘Good Stress’. But other aspects of a child’s life, like coping up, can cause anxiety among them.
At times, a child’s anxiety can be debilitating. The everyday pressures children face lead to emotional blips in their world, which can be spotted and hopefully dealt with. There are a whole range of anxiety disorders that affect children, like separation anxiety, generalised anxiety and school phobia. This is true for kids of all ages.
Just like with adults, major life changes like loss, divorce and moving house can lead to stress among children, but only with intensities which affect them much more than adults. Some children also find it hard to deal with the pressure of tests and exams, friendship issues and having to live up to parental expectations, leading to stress.
Here we list 10 possible signs of childhood stress:
- Change in behaviour
If you can’t exactly point it out, but you know there’s something different about the way your child is acting, it may be a sign of stress. “It may be a change in behaviour, something out of character that a parent picks up on that lasts too long, say for several weeks,” says Janey Downshire, who co-runs Teenagers Translated and is a specialist in young people’s development.
If your child seems to be worrying about the minutest of things, and showing signs of being anxious about situations more than usual, this may indicate they have something on their mind that is troubling them.
“There is a long list of things that kids worry about which to us as adults may seem trivial. With little ones, don’t dismiss or laugh at their fear, take them seriously, give lots of cuddles and reassurance,” says chartered psychologist Elaine Douglas.
Children often bite their nails, which may be out of habit, or it could be a sign of worrying. If your child doesn’t usually bite or has chewed them down to the quick, there may be an underlying reason which you need to identify and address.
- Showing aggression
If your child is being unusually aggressive, take it as an immediate alarm. If they are stressed about something that’s bothering them at school, they may take it out at home.
It could be hormonal changes, for example a surge in testosterone in boys which is making them more physical. But if they are being nasty with it, it may be stress-related.
“When some children have anxiety and they are struggling with their thoughts it can come out as irritability, anger and frustration,” says Nicky.
- Being withdrawn
Some children, when they feel emotional stress, may suddenly clam up.
They may become excessively withdrawn from family and activities, and not be responsive about what’s on their mind.
If a child is spending more time than usual disconnecting from the real world and connecting to the virtual world, it may be a sign of withdrawal. Keep an eye on their posts in case you can pick up clues as to how they are feeling, for example, negative comments about themselves and their lives.
- Non-verbal clues
Signs of stress may not be visible at hindsight. It’s highly unlikely that a child of any age will come up to you and say “Mum, Dad, I’m feeling stressed”. They probably won’t be able to articulate how they are feeling, or not be too open to sharing.
Ninety-three percent of communication is nonverbal, so you can pick up on signs of stress in ways other than talking – through voice tone, posture and not making eye contact.
When your 4-year-old wants to use the potty, or your 10-year-old keeps sucking their thumb, it’s an example of regressive behaviour which may be caused by stress.
Common causes could be a major event in their life which lead to sudden change – a new sibling being born or parents splitting up. Children don’t know how to express their feelings under such circumstances, so they involuntarily revert to habits from when they were younger.
Regressive signs could include talking in a more babyish manner, reverting to bedwetting, more infantile behaviour, more tantrums than normal or being clingy and uncooperative.
- Aches and pains
Emotional stress may manifest itself in physical forms. If a child is stressed, it may make their neck and shoulder muscles tighten.
If they complain about soreness, encourage them to relax, have a bath, let go of the tension if they can.
- Physical symptoms
Children may feel physically sick or get headaches when they are stressed.
This happens because when you are stressed, your biochemical balance is disrupted. You have high levels of cortisone and low levels of dopamine, so this can affect people in different ways. Some may get headachy others may get tummy pains.
Young children aren’t making up physical symptoms like tummy aches, feeling sick or a racing heart. They may be anxious, and school anxiety itself is particularly prevalent between the ages of 7 and 9. When children are under pressure, they may be more prone to minor ailments like cold sores and ulcers.
- Sleeping problems
Childhood stress may lead to sleeping problems. It may be an inability to fall asleep as their worries are going round and round inside their heads. It could also come out in the form of nightmares and bad dreams.
Sleeping problems may lead to children feeling more anxious or it could be the other way round that anxiety can lead to poor sleeping, which in turn makes anxiety worse.
- Changes in eating
Any changes in eating habits (either eating more or less than usual) may be a sign your child is under pressure of some form.
At one end of the spectrum they can’t face eating anything and then the other end they may resort to comfort eating, which is a faulty self-soothing technique to try to make themselves feel better.
Identify the issues that cause stress, and consult a child psychologist to address them before they have long term effects on your child.