Pediatric Health Talk: Mental and Emotional Heath Care

The Effects of Stress on Children

Dave Gluhareff of Train with Dave Fitness Training says, “Some of the biggest problems plaguing children today are inactivity, poor nutrition, lack of rest, and stress.” Monitoring mental health is just as important as keeping tabs on a child’s physical health. Stress is an important factor with mental health and children are at risk. It’s important to emphasis that some stress is normal and can be motivational. Differentiating from good and bad stress isn’t always easy. Taking steps to minimize the most obvious unnecessary stressors is a good first step.

Young children under the age of six haven’t developed enough to understand their stress and adults have a different response to stress. Bridging the gap so that an adult’s response is proportional in a child’s eyes is very important.

A stressed child can experience crying, headaches, stomach pains, toileting accidents, and sleep issues. Stress can manifest through fine motor responses such as hair twirling, fingernail biting, excessive chewing, and sucking, licking, or biting others. These responses are typically related to immediate and direct sources of stress. Prolonged and hidden sources of stress are more troublesome. They can lead to depression and shyness.

Stressed children may worry excessively about things that have already happened while also dreading things to come. They may become obsessed with routines or ritualistic behaviors, food, and objects. Many experts see a correlation in the increase in childhood stress to the increase in childhood obesity. The effects of less than ideal eating habits are multiplied by the stress in a child’s life and can lead to excessive weight gain or malnutrition, similar to an adult’s response to stress. The results can have lifelong negative effects on their health. Eating habits developed as a child can potentially extend into adulthood.

For children, sources of stress come from every direction. Some stress is needed. Being forced to clean his room may make a child feel stressed by the sheer number of toys and clothes on the floor. But it is a positive and necessary stress that helps teach them responsibility. In contrast, arguing parents causes stress in children whether the child feels directly responsible for the argument or just worried that her parents will break up. This is a negative and unnecessary stress that makes children withdraw.

Common sources of stress aren’t hard to uncover. In preschoolers, separation from parents can cause stress. For school-age children, academic pressures can cause stress. The schedules we set for our children with extracurricular activities can become overwhelming to both the child and the parent. Many children don’t have time to play creatively or relax. The social environment at school where children feel pressure to fit in can be a source of good stress or bad stress depending on the individual child’s personality. This stress can lead to bullying. Being bullied is a painful stressor that should be taken seriously and eliminated. But it’s also important to recognize the bully is also a child with stressors which manifest in the form of bullying. Dr. Samantha King of PATHS adds, “Unfortunately, so many children and teens are struggling with bullying, depression, anxiety and obesity. Hopefully, if your child has regularly scheduled checkups, these office visits will improve the physical and emotional health of many of our children who are silently struggling with these and other issues.”

Reducing Stress

There are ways to manage and reduce stress. Proper nutrition is a good place to start. Healthy eating habits along with designated eating times make a big difference. Replace junk food snacks with fruit. Get rid of sugary drinks. If there is only healthy food in the house, then by default, children will only eat healthy food.

Rest is also key in reducing stress. “With so much visual stimulation of television, video games, and tablets kids struggle to nap or even get to bed at a normal hour,” says Gluhareff. Sleep is a tremendously important part of our lives. Teaching children the importance of sleep is crucial. Cutting off screen time well before bedtime is necessary. Toddlers to school-age children should get anywhere from ten to fourteen hours of sleep a night depending on their age.

Anticipate potentially stressful situations and diffuse them in advance. For example, if you’re stressed about your child’s first day at school, your child will also be stressed about it. If you’re excited and can’t wait for it, well, your child will probably feel the same way. Be reassuring and don’t over-talk it.

Physical activity is another stress reducer. Find family activities that incorporate physical activity with fun time. This also help to provide an environment that encourages creativity.

Teach your children how to name and identify their emotions. Give them techniques to handle each emotion as it comes up. It’s easy to teach a child to scream if a stranger approaches. It takes more work to show the child how to ask for help if she’s being teased at school.

Parents likely already have all the tools and skills needed to reduce and manage their children’s stress. But, when things get overwhelming, it’s smart to seek professional guidance from a team that understands that every question is meaningful.

And to understand the most important tool you can possess to help a child with stress is a positive attitude.