“Kids have worries,” says psychologist Dr Ilse de Beer. “They worry about fitting in with their peers, about tests and marks, about their performance on the sports field, and about what is happening at home. These worries can make them feel stressed, anxious and even depressed. “Something that might not seem like such a big deal to an adult is an overwhelmingly massive deal for a child. Don’t dismiss a child’s feelings or emotional stress. Instead, let them know that you acknowledge how they feel, that you understand and that you care,” she says.
How stress manifests in children
Stress manifests differently in young people than it does in adults. This means it can be difficult for parents, teachers and caregivers to notice the signs. These can include mood swings, difficulty sleeping or changes in sleeping patterns, poor concentration, tearfulness, and withdrawing socially.
“Younger children aren’t always able to articulate their feelings. Frequently, they might be feeling sad or angry, but they cannot pinpoint why. Their feelings of anxiety or stress can manifest as physical complaints, and we often see children who are stressed, complain about tummy aches, headaches, or being tired. Look out for these signs. If your child has a mysterious tummy ache every Wednesday before an extramural activity, it might be time to consider that it is the activity that is causing your child stress, and that is what he or she is trying to tell you,” says Dr de Beer.
Signs of stress in older children
“Older children who are experiencing stress might start acting out, become emotional, sad, or withdrawn. Their schoolwork and relationships with their parents, teachers, and peers can also suffer. Don’t perceive all behaviour as ‘just normal teen behaviour’. Indeed, teenagers can be awkward, but don’t dismiss the possibility that your child could be struggling with stress,” explains Dr de Beer.
Sources of stress and anxiety for children can include studying for exams, tight extracurricular schedules, problems socialising and fitting in, peer pressure, bullying, illness and conflict in the home.
Dr de Beer warns parents to be careful about having conversations in front of their children about finances, crime, and other such subjects that could be internalised by their children and cause them stress.
How technology can contribute to stress
She says the use of technology is another source of undue stress on children and can lead to = overstimulation. Technology has an adverse effect on auditory concentration and memory.
“Battling to concentrate becomes a problem in the class environment where a teacher stands in front of a class explaining work. Children can easily fall behind, which can contribute to stress. It is also important to note that the overuse of technology has a significant social impact because relationships can easily become superficial and distant. Children can struggle to relate naturally to their friends. The effects of technology use can also include not being able to make physical or eye contact with others. In this way, children lose their support network and developmental benefits of belonging to a healthy and normal peer group, and can add to their stress.”
Dr de Beer says staying connected to children is the best way for parents to recognise the signals of stress.
“Make time for small talk each day and take an interest in your children’s daily activities. Enquire about what influenced their day, whether it was positive or negative. Be specific in your questions while remaining upbeat and subtle. A vague ‘how was your day?’ will warrant a vague response, and you are unlikely to find out if anything could have happened during the day to upset your child. When your child opens up, take the time to ‘unpack’ what is worrying them and look for a solution with them.”
She offers the following tips for managing school and lifestyle stress in children:
- Always find time to talk to your child and be approachable and accessible to them.
- Look for signs of stress. Don’t shrug off mood swings as your child “being difficult”.
- Inform your children that it is healthy and okay to feel lonely, sad, or anxious sometimes – and that it is also okay to share these feelings.
- Help them with relaxing techniques and coping strategies.
- Limit the use of technology.
- Have a good routine at home for homework, downtime, activities, meal times, playtime, and sleep. This structure will provide healthy boundaries and makes children feel secure. Talk to your kids and connect.
- Establish a good sleep routine. Bedtime during the week should be age-appropriate and non-negotiable. Children need adequate sleep to cope with their day. Over the weekend, there can be some flexibility.
- Keep the morning routine calm. Wake up earlier to allow your children more time to get ready.
- Spend time doing ‘fun stuff’ with children. Tight schedules and overregulation can cause them stress. Quality time is essential, even as children get older.
- Teach children to be consistent in their schoolwork and other tasks. Teach them the value of preparation and sticking to deadlines. Leaving things to the last minute puts them under pressure, destroys routine and structure, and results in stress.
- Ensure your child has the correct balance of healthy exercise, relaxation time, extramural activities, and playtime.
- Offer constructive criticism, praise, and encouragement. Children who are anxious and stressed can become overwhelmed with negative thoughts and be very critical of themselves. Try to be positive rather than focusing on the negative.
Dr de Beer says that most parents can deal with their children’s stress. However, there are times when it may become necessary to seek professional help. “When children become withdrawn, aggressive, or start acting out regularly, and it is outside of the norm, it is time to seek help. In older children, it is important to seek counselling when schoolwork and school results drop. Also, trust your intuition. When your gut tells you there is something ‘off’ with your child, then take these concerns to heart. As adults, we can battle with managing stress, so it is naïve to expect children to be able to manage their stress on their own effectively. We need to help and guide them. Stress is real for kids,” concludes Dr de Beer.
More about the expert:
Dr Ilse de Beer is a Christian psychologist, with a special interest in health psychology. As a motivational speaker she focuses on equipping people to function better emotionally in their day-to-day life. This is achieved through teaching practical ways of improving life skills. Learn more about Dr Ilse de Beer here.
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