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Approaching Stress: Helping Kids Manage their Anxiety

March 3, 2016 12:00 PM with Dr. Rebecca Nelson

Childhood and adolescence are such important times; full of growth, learning opportunities and social activities. However; dealing with the stress and anxiety that often appear during these times can be very difficult, and many children and their parents don’t know how to approach these subjects. We’re here to help. Rebecca Nelson, PhD, Developmental Psychologist within the department of Pediatrics, will be discussing how you can recognize stress and anxiety in your children, ways to better manage these conditions and who you can talk to in order to get more help.


Dr. Rebecca Nelson (NorthShore) - 11:57 AM:
Welcome. I'm Rebecca Nelson, a clinical child & adolescent psychologist from the Dept. of Pediatrics. It can be difficult to see our children anxious or stressed. Parents, too, can feel distressed in the process of trying to help. So I'm glad to have the opportunity to chat with you today.

Kathryn (Moderator) - 12:00 PM:
Our chat on childhood stress is now open! Feel free to submit questions at any time during the chat.

  Caroline (Evanston, IL) - 12:01 PM:
My 12-year-old daughter gets upset when she sees her two good friends on social media posting photos of themselves having fun and tagging it with #bestfriends. What's a good response from me to help her keep it in perspective?
Dr. Rebecca Nelson (NorthShore)
Hi Caroline. It's good to know that 12 year-old girls often refer to "best friends" not exclusively, but in very loose terms, and may change monthly if not weekly. Even though this does not feel good to your daughter at the time, you can reassure her it is temporary. Also, you can remind your daughter she has control over what she chooses to see on Facebook by toggling the controls. Thank you for your question.

  Kelli (Rockford, IL) - 12:06 PM:
My 3 year, 5 month old daughter has really been giving my husband a hard time when it comes to getting her up in the morning, getting dressed, doing her hair, eating, putting on shoes, etc... Basically everything that needs to get done every day. We were hoping it was a phase, but it's been going on for more than 6 months now. She will physically try to get away from him and scream and cry for "mama". It's a struggle because I can't do it all! Any idea why she's acting this way?
Dr. Rebecca Nelson (NorthShore)
Hi Kelli, I don't know enough about your situation to provide anything definitively, but generally speaking this is not too unusual. She is of age where many preschoolers like to assert their independence passionately, especially if she already has a strong personality. Second, a child may strongly gravitate toward a parent who is less available, and making some extra one-on-one time for her earlier in the am might help with that - so she gets her fill of you before the routine sets in. If you feel this is an unusual change in behavior for her then I would seek a consult. First with your pediatrician who then can provide a good point of further direction if needed. Thank you for your question.

  Kelli (Rockford, IL) - 12:11 PM:
Thanks for being available Dr. Nelson!

  Claudia (Waukegan, IL) - 12:12 PM:
My son is 7 years old; his hobby is mostly video games, but when I ask him to turn them off, he gets really upset and he hits me, screams, and throws items around the house. He also gets frustrated when doing his homework. Are there actions normal for his age?
Dr. Rebecca Nelson (NorthShore)
Hi Claudia, thank you for your question. It is possible this could be learned behavior. It is possible there is something more, but this is not typical behavior, and also must be stressful for you. Please seek assistance as soon as possible from his pediatrician.

  Stephanie (Kenosha, WI) - 12:16 PM:
What do you find is a healthy balance in terms of being involved in competitive sports (team and individual - ice skating) for young children? What are the best ways to help children deal with the anxiety and stress of competitions, being on a team, etc?
Dr. Rebecca Nelson (NorthShore)
Great question, Stephanie. The key is this: Is the child driving the passion for the competitive sport or are the parents? Would the child be disappointed if s/he did not participate? Extracurricular activities ideally should be prioritized based on the child's enjoyment, interest, and skill development, not "winning," parent motivation, or "everybody's doing it.' To answer your second question, anxiety and stress related to performance is often referred to as "positive stress." This is the kind of stress that ushers in a new level of skill or development. Research has shown that if one can frame anxiety as excitement, the level of performance is enhanced - mindset matters.

  Sonia (Round Lake, IL) - 12:24 PM:
I have a 7 year old boy who was an extreme preemie. He continuously grinds his teeth, especially when working intensely on something. Is this a sign of stress or anxiety? If so, how can I help him?
Dr. Rebecca Nelson (NorthShore)
Hi Sonia, it is possible your son's teeth grinding may be related to stress or anxiety, or maybe not. I don't know with such little information. I would suggest a dental consult in the least for ongoing teeth grinding, and monitor for teeth grinding at other times (e.g., at night during sleep). If there are other concerns, please consult with your pediatrician. Thank you for your question.

  CA (Evanston, IL) - 12:28 PM:
My daughter (13) is doing well (academically, socially) but still gets so easily overwhelmed and discouraged. "I just can't take it - nothing ever goes my way" read one text when she didn't want to go to a sports practice. How do I best handle those meltdowns and create a healthy environment to minimize those situations? When should I worry?
Dr. Rebecca Nelson (NorthShore)
Thank you for your question. Some questions to think about might be: Would she benefit from fewer activities? Does she feel expectations are too high? Is she enjoying the sport she's in? Would she benefit from someone to talk to (counselor)? If you're not sure you may want to have some conversations with her about these during a neutral time and let her know of your concern. If you still have a difficult time reaching her then seek a consult to assist with what might be goiing on in the big picture.

  Orlando (Evanston, IL) - 12:38 PM:
My son gets very shy when entering or seeing new people, and covers his face. Before, he would cling on to either me (father) or his mother, and would not let go for at least an hour or two, as much as we assure him that everything is okay. We have passed the clinging part, but he still covers his face, and we give him time to adjust, and we ignore it and let him break out of his shell. Is that the right thing to do? Thank you.
Dr. Rebecca Nelson (NorthShore)
Hi Orlando, I don't know how old your son is, but I'm assuming he is young, perhaps a toddler or preschooler. It also sounds like he is quite shy. Yes, you are doing the right thing in giving him time to adjust to new settings and people and letting "him break out of his shell." It can be harmful to force shy children into situations before they are ready. You do want to regularly expose him to social situations, however, so he becomes used to being with others, especially same-aged peers. He will be most comfortable in structured situations and you can gradually introduce him to less structured situations. I think the following book will be helpful for you: Keys to Parenting your Anxious Child (updated version) by Katharina Manassis, MD. And if he is a sensitive child as well then you may wish to look up on the web, Elane Aron, PhD - her work: the Highly Sensitive Child. Thank you for your question.

  Nikki (Chicago, IL) - 12:49 PM:
I have a 4 year old son that has just recently started chewing on his shirt sleeve. Is this a sign of anxiety or perhaps a more common developmental phase?
Dr. Rebecca Nelson (NorthShore)
Hi Nikki, thank you for your question. Young kids chewing on clothing can occur for multiple reasons (e.g., new teeth coming in, oral sensory seeking behavior, etc.). If your son doesn't show other behavioral signs of being anxious (e.g., change in toileting habits, night terrors or change in sleep habits, complaints of fearfulness, nervous behavior, etc.), and there isn't any cause that you are aware of (e.g., recent move, family disruption, etc.), I wouldn't have cause for concern. If it continues and you are bothered by it, consult with your child's pediatrician.

  A Concerned Mother (Evanston, IL) - 12:57 PM:
My 4 year old daughter's hair started thinning about 3-4 months ago. She's always had thick curly hair since birth. I also have noticed her pulling at her hair, especially around the edges. When I comb her hair, multiple strands fall out, and the hair is becoming stringy. My mother told me these are symptoms of anxiety and stress. I don't know why my 4 year old would be stressed out, but I need to know how I can help her.
Dr. Rebecca Nelson (NorthShore)
Good question. Please consult with your daughter's pediatrician as soon as you can for an appropriate referral. It is possible based on your limited information your daughter has a condition related to anxiety known as trichotillomania. (obssessive-compulsive disorder). Anxiety traits can be passed down in families. There are therapists who work with children with this condition using cognitive-behavioral approaches, which are research-based. Best to you.

Dr. Rebecca Nelson (NorthShore) - 1:04 PM:
Thank you to everyone for your questions today. Dr. Nelson

Kathryn (Moderator) - 1:05 PM:
This will be the end of our chat. Thank you for your questions!

Kathryn (Moderator) - 1:08 PM:
To speak to a specialist like Dr. Nelson or make an appointment, you can contact our Pediatrics department or our Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences department. Please take a look at our sidebar for more resources from Dr. Nelson.

This chat has ended.

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