Stress: No one is exempt
Part 3 of 3
Lori Hudson Bertrand DC, RN
Stress can be defined in many different ways. Emotional and physiological aspects are factors when defining stress. Basically, it’s an imbalance between the coping skills of the person perceiving stress and their environmental demands. It is important to remember that some stress can be good or bad, excessive or severe. Although we all experience stress in some shape or form, some children (and adults) seem to be more vulnerable to it than others. A child’s age, health, reaction, and temperament can all contribute to how a child handles stress1. As much as we would love to protect our children from stress and worry, it’s impossible. We can, however, equip them with coping strategies that can be used throughout life when they encounter stress.
It’s important for caregivers and parents to be attentive to signs of stress in children. This will help them process and deal with stress before it gets overwhelming. It is important to remember that stress can be displayed in many different forms and each child is unique. If a child is exposed to several stressors at the same time or in succession, they are more vulnerable to experiencing behavioral or health changes. Remember, stress is real even at a young age. When helping a child, try to recognize, understand, and anticipate the nature of stress in their life. Do this by really listening to them. When we listen we can become aware of concerns and fears. Validate that what they say and feel matters; let them know they are important. Comforting a child through physical contact like hugging or holding can be reassuring and can also foster communication. Spending time with them, unhurried and uninterrupted time can build up security and strengthen your relationship. This can be done throughout the day, (placing the phone and computers aside!) or during family vacations and outings. Listening, providing physical contact, and spending time with them are essential to children’s well-being.
Some sources of stress can be from school, family, friends, and other organized activities. These combined with pressures to score well on exams, preform in sports, and other daily requirements can create unrealistic expectations on school-aged children1. Incorporate open communication into your daily routine as a tool for identifying sources of stress. Some of the following signs can be displayed in children experiencing stress:
- Aggressive behavior
- Regressive behavior
- Changes in academic performance
- Alteration in sleep or nightmares
- Stomach aches
- Change in eating habits
Children around the ages of 7-12 years of age are capable of identifying how their body reacts to stress. A description such as their heart beats fast, headaches, goose bumps or stomachaches are all phrases used by children to denote stress1. Children are encouraged to identify some of these physiological responses as reactions to stress in order to better manage stress in their lives. Learning tools like deep breathing exercises, physical activity, and other relaxation techniques can reduce anxiety in children. When finding a technique that works for them, children can use that coping strategy in other situations. Obviously, each child is different. This isn’t to say that these signs and symptoms always signify excessive stress in a child. It is to draw light on the fact that stress is real in all ages, and when both the child and caregiver are aware of what’s being experienced along with how to address it in a healthy and productive way, children are better equipped to cope with stress now and in the future.
Fears leading to stress vary based on age. Common fears in elementary school age children that are considered normal are being scared of the dark, need for reassurance, and stress over past behaviors. As children approach middle school and high school, fears shift more into family and school related issues1.
Children face stress so why not equip them with ways to handle tension in a healthy and productive manner? Coping strategies are how children can deal with stress. Studies show that as children get older, they develop a more vigilant means of coping. Like adults, children respond to stress by trying to adjust to their environment or change their circumstances1. Incorporating effective ways to reduce stress in their lives and have them utilize these activates as they grow can help them in the future. Listening to music, playing sports, reading, drawing, writing, taking a nap and physical exercise are all ways children can cope with stress.
Stress reduction techniques can be taught to children. Stress truly exists in their lives. First, recognize signs and symptoms that can manifest from tension then adapt healthy ways they can cope with stress. These can be different for every child. Second, as a parent or caregiver, try to anticipate possible stressful situations and talk it out with your child beforehand. One of the most beneficial tools a child can learn is solving problems. When they learn how to solve a problem they begin to see new situations as a learning experience1. This creates the knowledge that they have the ability within themselves to solve problems and better handle situations that come their way. Children gain a since of confidence when they learn to solve problems. They also do better when they know who to go to when they are in a difficult situation.
Bottom line- Life gets busy; schedules get packed between kids, work, and chores; stress begins to take over. Take a moment to sit back, breathe, and enjoy those around you. If you feel rushed, how do you think your kids feel? They pick up on more than we realize. So begin to adapt healthy, stress reducing habits and model this for your children. Spend quality time with them and really get to know what they’re thinking. Enjoy the time you have with them, they grow up so fast!
DEFINE’s senior instructor and anatomy specialist, Lori Hudson Bertrand D.C., R.N. is a doctor in chiropractic and registered nurse. Her love for helping people through education about anatomy and physiology drives her to continue to share her experiences and knowledge with others as they pursue their journey towards health and restoration!
1Hockenberry, M., Wilson, D. (2009). Wong’s Essentials of Pediatric Nursing, 8th ed. St. Louis, Missouri: Mosby Elsever.