Stress in Children
A Handout for Parents
by David Streight, Portland,
and Ellis P. Copeland, University of Northern Colorado
Stress is a feeling of discomfort that
is experienced somewhat differently by children and adults and
from one individual to another. Our world is full of situations
and events that cause stress unemployment, marital tension,
death of a parent or sibling, serious illness or injury, unexpected
bills, etc. Particularly for children, stressful events might
include parents' divorce, abuse or neglect, poverty, school
failure or illness. Even positive events can create a degree
of stress such as moving to a new home, a new job, a new baby
in the family, etc. Although a certain amount of stress is good,
life today presents most of us with more stress than we want
or need. The age of the computer, of instant information, of
instant evaluation of our actions, rather than making life easier
as we always thought it would has added to the expectations
that others have of us or that we have of ourselves. With a
little more time, we feel that we can always do "just a
little bit more."
It is important to distinguish daily life
"hassles" from significant stress. Parents and children
experience such common hassles as waiting in line (at the bank,
in the school lunch line), changes in daily routine, rescheduling
appointments, conflicts with family members or friends, etc.
Generally, children (as well as adults) learn strategies to
effectively cope with these small hassles. Significant stressors,
such as a death, loss of income or serious illness, are more
likely to catch children or adults unprepared to cope. These
events result in serious consequences for the individual's physical
and emotional well-being. However, while life's "hassles"
generally have less negative consequences, the cumulative effect
of many such "hassles" can be as detrimental as any
single traumatic event. The perception of stress is also related
to experience and development what is stressful for one person
may not even amount to a small hassle for another. The ability
to evaluate stress level and to develop coping skills increases
with age and cognitive development.
Our environment is stressful. But much
of our stress is caused by our mental attitude in conjunction
with the environment. Can you remember a time when something
happened that nearly sent you "through the ceiling"
in anger, even though on another day the same event might have
bothered you very little? This is an example of the effect of
our thoughts on our mood. Having to get something done for a
sympathetic loved one is much less stressful than having to
get the same task done for a boss, a teacher or another individual
who has power over us or whose expectations we feel we have
to meet. Thus, it's not the situation that causes all the stress.
Our beliefs about the situation are a big piece of the puzzle.
Although different individuals will find
different events more or less stressful, stress in children
is usually caused by:
· New, unfamiliar or unpredictable
· Unclear expectations
· Expectations of something unpleasant
· Fear of failure (socially or academically)
· Major developmental "hurdles"
(moving from elementary to middle school, leaving home)
Symptoms of Stress
The effects of stress vary from one person
to another and each person may develop unique symptoms or individual
styles of handling stress. Some environments (e.g., homes, schools,
etc.) are more stressful than others. Additionally, constitutional
factors, including gender and temperament, play a significant
role in how stress is perceived and handled. Stress is cumulative
and progressive, and improved resources and coping skills are
often necessary to reduce its ill effects.
There are generally three recognized stages
of stress marked by phases of physical changes: alarm, resistance
and exhaustion. In the first stage of stress, the body goes
into "red alert" with an increase in heart rate and
breathing as the individual considers a course of action. This
is followed by "resistance" where the body attempts
to slow down and return to "normal." If the stressful
event continues or if the individual is unable to adapt to the
situation, exhaustion may follow.
Symptoms of stress in children:
Symptoms of stress in young children may be difficult to distinguish
from symptoms of minor illness. Be alert for signs of irritability,
sleeping, toileting or eating difficulties, fearfulness, difficulties
adapting to change in routine and clinginess, or use of key
words such as "sad" or "afraid." As children
get older, their responses to stress may include more attention-seeking
behaviors, mood changes, avoidance of certain activities, isolation
(such as the adolescent who retreats more and more to his or
her room), school refusal or changes in the quality of schoolwork,
sleeping difficulties and physical complaints (headache, stomachache).
Seek help for your child if the symptoms persist or you are
not able to identify the basis for these concerns. Your school
psychologist, social worker, counselor or family physician can
help locate appropriate resources.
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder:
Children who experience overwhelming stress may develop Post-traumatic
Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD refers to stress resulting from
a specific incident: an incident severe enough to cause profound
damage to an individual's ability to cope in everyday life,
especially in those parts of everyday life that remind the person
of the traumatic incident. Although the information in this
handout may be of some help to people who suffer from PTSD,
such individuals are advised to consult with a qualified professional
for more specific evaluation and treatment to diminish the effects
of the incident.
What Can I Do as a Parent?
Do not place undue expectations on
your child. We all want our children to be successful,
and we should have expectations for their behavior and performance.
But when stress starts to show itself, it may be time to question
if our expectations are too high.
Listen to your child when
he or she describes stressful events or situations. Being a
good listener will, first of all, reassure your child that you
are there with love and support. Moreover, it will help you
to better understand how you can help.
Teach your child good problem-solving
skills. The feeling that we have too much to do in the
amount of time available to us is a frequent cause of stress.
When overburdened, we have difficulty seeing how to get ourselves
out of the jam we're in. Help your child learn to break big
problems into smaller ones that can be dealt with one at a time.
Talk with them about how you have handled stressful situations.
Rehearse stressful situations.
If speaking in front of a group or making a phone call to an
adult is a cause for stress, it can be helpful to talk through
the event with your child. Discuss how he or she wants the event
to take place, and then go through the situation together in
a "trial run." The practice is good, and possible
difficulties can be "problem solved" together.
Be aware of "irrational thinking"
patterns. Sometimes we can overhear our children "thinking
aloud" with sentences like "I have to get this done
or my friends are going to be mad," or "If I don't
do this extra assignment, I'll never get into college."
More frequently, only the first part of the sentence is there:
"I have to do what the other kids are doing," "I
shouldn't really be reading this novel just for fun right now,"
or "I need to get this whole list of things finished right
now." Often hidden behind such thoughts is the unfounded
belief that "if I don't live up to my teacher's expectations,
I'll never be a success in life," or "if friends get
mad at me, then that confirms that I'm not a good person."
And, deep down, these "ifthen" statements frequently
mask core beliefs that people accept as true, even if they have
never questioned them logically. These are beliefs like "I'm
not a very loveable person," or "the world is a cruel
place, and the only way to survive is by doing everything perfectly."
If you become aware of harmful beliefs, help your child look
at life, and him or herself, more realistically and more positively.
There are a number of good relaxation tapes on the market, but
all of them emphasize the importance of sitting or lying down
and breathing slowly from deep in the stomach, rather than breathing
where the shoulders or chest is in motion. A frequently-used
visualization technique is that of relaxing (as above), and
then imagining one self in a "favorite place" a place
that is warm and inviting, comfortable and beautiful. Relaxation
techniques are useful for diminishing the feeling of stress,
but they do little to keep stress from reoccurring. Relaxation
can be especially effective when used in conjunction with the
rehearsal of a stressful situation before it occurs. Some children
might need professional assistance to learn effective relaxation
techniques. Also, remember that for children as well as adults,
exercise is not only a good way to "relax" but a good
way to reduce both the physical and emotional "baggage"
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Charlesworth, E.A. & Nathan, R.G. (1984).
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New York: Ballantine.
Cohen, D. & Cohen. S. (1992). Teenage
stress. New York: Laurel Leaf.
Davis, M., Robbins-Eshelman, E., & McKay,
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Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Greenberger, D. & Padesky, C. A. (1995).
Mind over mood. New York: The Guilford Press.
Martin, M. & Waltman-Greenwood, C. (1995).
Solve your child's school-related problems. New York:
Mendler, A. (1990). Smiling at yourself:
Educating young children about stress and self-esteem. Santa
Cruz, CA: Network Publications.
© 1998 National
Association of School Psychologists, 4340 East West Highway,
Suite 402, Bethesda MD 20814 301-657-0270.
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