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Signs of Stress in Children and How to Help

Signs of Stress in Children and How to Help

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Updated on Apr 26, 2013

You may have heard the horror stories: A middle school girl stops eating, or a fourth grader suddenly starts eating his hair. These and many other situations are caused by stress.

"The core of stress is a belief that we will fail and be kicked out of our group, left to fend for ourselves in a world of saber tooth tigers," says Dr. Joseph Shrand, a psychiatrist and instructor at Harvard Medical School. You can help your child face the tigers at school by recognizing common warning signs of stress.

Signs to Look For

Beth Hail, the director of Centerstone, a school-based therapy program in Tennessee, offers this list of common signs parents can watch for.  

  • Weight gain/loss
  • Sleeping problems
  • Academic problems
  • Change in eating habits
  • Alcohol and drug use
  • Cutting
  • Fear of being alone
  • Fear of specific places

With younger kids, she and her team of therapists tend to see them withdraw from activities. They may have a sudden and significant change in interests, or they may start to stay in the house more and find reasons to avoid school.

Spotting the Symptoms

It can be overwhelming, but Beth makes it simple. Her big message to parents is to look for changes in behavior. Any major change you see could be a sign your child is stressed, but parents often miss these signs because they happen so gradually.

Beth says the warning sign parents tend to miss is a change in peer relationships. "If they are totally engrossed in someone or they start to isolate themselves, something might be going on," she says.

Take note of any changes in your child's relationships. Maybe the way she talks about a person has changed. Or she suddenly stops talking about a person altogether. Friends do come and go, but in an age of cyber bullying, monitoring our child's relationships can be crucial to catching stress early.

What You Can Do

Consult with other adults. Talk to your child's teachers to see if they notice the same behavior you're seeing, and loop other parents into the conversation as well. They can tell you if their children are going through something similar. If you find out that half the fifth grade girls are behaving in a strange and similar way, for example, it is probably an age-related change or a popular fad.

And go straight to the source. Talk to your child regularly about what's going on.

Dealing with Silent Kids

As kids get older, they tend to pull away from their parents and become more independent. Also, many children simply don't know what's bothering them.

"Be subtle about it," Beth suggests. She adds that parents should avoid questions like "What's going on with you?" and "What's the matter with you?" Your child is more likely to open up if you are less direct. Fish for potential relationship issues by asking questions like, "You haven't mentioned so-and-so in a while. What's going on with her?"

Watch TV shows and movies together and chat about issues that come up. Phineas and Ferb can spark discussions on friendship and honesty. A Twilight marathon can bring about a lengthy talk about love and dating. These indirect methods are an effective way to find out what's going on in your child's life.

When to Request Help

If the signs of stress start to seriously impact your child's ability to function, it's time to consider professional help. What does this look like? It differs for every child, but common signs are dropping out of activities, gaining a lot of weight and withdrawing from friends.

Therapy can be a scary word, especially for parents. And therapy isn't at all a quick fix. It can be incredibly frustrating to wait months for significant progress, but in the end it can make all the difference. Eventually, your child will have a set of skills and strategies that help him cope with any stress that comes up.

As a parent, it's understandable to feel like you want to knock heads together and force change to happen quickly for your child, but as you learn more about anxiety and stress, you'll be better able to help your little one. If you see worrisome signs of change in your child, the sooner you work to address it, the better off your whole family will be.

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