How to Identify Stress in Children and Adolescents.
Our children and adolescents can experience stress from a variety of sources such as school, athletics, peer relationships, or challenges at home. At times, they may experience stress from multiple sources at the same time. Although not always easy, it is important for parents to stay in sync with their child’s level of stress and provide support before it begins to negatively impact their emotional state and impair their ability to function effectively in their daily life. Below are a few steps parents can take to stay in touch with their child or adolescent’s stress level:
Keep an eye out for negative changes in behavior: it is often difficult for children and adolescents to recognize and communicate about stress they are experiencing. As a result, parents need to be on the look out for changes in behavior that could indicate their children are experiencing significant stress. Behaviors to look for include: irritability, moodiness, withdrawing from friends or family, frequently or easily crying, avoiding activities they once seemed to enjoy, difficulty sleeping, excessive sleeping, or easily angered.
Know that “feeling sick” can be a sign of stress: as noted above, children are not always able to identify and verbalize feelings of significant stress. Because of this and particularly in young children, stress can be expressed as physical symptoms of illness such as stomach aches or headaches. If, after being checked and cleared by a physician, you child experiences an increase of physical symptoms in certain situations like before school tests or particular social situations it may be a sign of significant stress.
Stay in touch with how your child is interacting with peers: Although parents can usually keep close tabs on how their child is doing at home, keeping up with how they are doing in other social situations such as school is not always as easy. However, just because your child seems to be doing well at home, it is not an indicator that things are going well elsewhere. To stay in touch with how your child is functioning in the world outside of home it is important to develop and maintain a network of connections with parents, coaches, teachers, school administrators and other leaders of your child’s extracurricular activities. Staying connected in this way can give you early indicators that your child is struggling or experiencing significant stress, allowing you to intervene and provide support quickly.
Listen for words that may indicate stress: Children do not often talk about stress by saying they are “stressed out”. As parents it is important to listen for words children often use to indicate they are feeling the effects of significant stress. Listen for words such as “worried, confused, angry, or annoyed”. Stress can also be expressed in negative language about themselves or the world around them. Listen for statements such as, “I’m stupid,” “I can never do anything right,” “No one likes me.” When you hear these or similar statements it is important to sit with your child and explore the source of these statements. Doing so can identify the source of the stress and help determine whether your intervention is needed.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help: When the stress is overwhelming and, despite your best efforts, your child is struggling to effectively cope, do not be afraid to ask for help. Psychologists are trained professionals who can help identify the sources of stress, develop a plan for reducing the overwhelming stress and help build skills for more effectively managing stress in the future.