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Is Your Kid Stressed? Help Them Manage Their Anxieties by Dr. Rebecca Nelson

Thursday, August 09, 2018 7:49 AM

Childhood and adolescence are such important times; full of growth, learning opportunities and social activities. However, dealing with the stress and anxiety that often appears during these times can be difficult, and many children and their parents don’t know how to approach these subjects. As back-to-school season gears up, now is the perfect time for parents to learn what they can do to help their children manage these difficult emotions.

Defining Stress, Anxiety and Resilience

Anxiety and stress are often used interchangeably. Both are reactions involving thoughts, emotions, and physiological responses – like change in heart rate. Anxiety involves our anticipation of perceived threat. Stress is our response. We want resilience, which is sustaining good, healthy functioning despite negative experiences and setbacks.

Types of Stress

  • Experiencing anxiety and stress over new experiences is normal and expected. For children, this might include staying with a babysitter for the first time, giving a speech in class or taking a driver’s license test. This kind of stress can be perceived as ushering new development and skills, and sometimes is referred to as “positive stress.”
  • Complicated stress, such as the loss of a best friend, death of a grandparent or a divorce are more challenging experiences in the short and long-term, and carry a mixture of deeper emotions. Most children can adjust well with developmentally appropriate, consistent and nurturing adult support. Mindset or how one perceives and makes meaning of stressors is also important in managing them, and being resilient.
  • Chronic or traumatic stress includes children living in notably disadvantaged social conditions, or who are maltreated, neglected, and abused. Chronic stress not only feels bad, but leads to poor immune system functioning, creating vulnerability to stress-related health conditions, mental health disorders and school underachievement.

What Children and Teens Are Anxious and Stressed About

Young kids can stress about normal developmental fears such as strangers, new places and animals, etc., changes in family and routine or unpredictable events such as the loss of pet or family member. Older kids and teens can stress about appearance, peer status, social and romantic relationships, academic performance and college acceptance.

How to know if your child is stressed?

Emotionally, children of all ages may show an increased sense of fragility in their feelings. Vulnerable and negative emotions may be closer to the surface such as increased sensitivity, impatience, anger or crying. Behaviorally, you may see displays of new, unproductive, repetitive behaviors. Young children being less verbal may show direct symptoms. Older children and teens may be more subtle or secretive in their behaviors. Verbally, children and teens may talk about feeling overwhelmed, helpless, they may seek validation or may refuse or become conflictual about the source or related topic.

What To Do?

1. Observe and monitor your child’s behavior.
2. Acknowledge your child’s anxious or stressed feelings in a calm and sensitive manner during a neutral time.
3. Ask open-ended questions to gain information, and keep the lines of communication open.
4. Reassure your child tthat their anxious feelings and source of stress are temporary and manageable.
5. Reassure your child that you will support and help them through this time.
6. Let your child know they are not alone in their experience. Other children have similar feelings and experiences. Share your own appropriately, and how you overcame them.
7. Seek professional assistance if anxious behaviors are ongoing or your child complains of ongoing distress. Anxious behaviors should not interfere with the daily functioning of a child or family (e.g., accommodations, compensations, etc.).
8. Model positive stress management – children are astute observers and take their cues from their parents.

Further Help?

For a consult regarding your child with Dr. Nelson in the Department of Pediatrics, please contact 847.570.2208. For a consult or therapist for an older teen or yourself (parent) in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, please contact 847.425.6400.