How to help your kids with stress
ID your child's stress now and help them cope
Tuesday, August 06, 2013
While stress is a normal part of life, kids today seem bombarded by it.
Whether they experience life-altering changes like divorce or death in the family or just everyday adjustments like moving homes or new schools, kids often don't have the tools to manage the stress.
"Stress becomes a problem when it interferes with daily activities on a regular basis," says Sara Sladoje, a child life specialist at Chicago-based GRASP Group. "If weeks go by and your child is having a hard time engaging in their normal activities like playing, sleeping or eating, take a step back from the situation and decide if he or she might be struggling with stress."
From toddlers to little kids to big kids, each age group shows signs of stress differently.
It's crucial to know what to look for, what steps to take and how to help your child manage.
"Sometimes if you have the tools, you can stop it from becoming a bigger problem," says Sladoje.
Our littlest children lack the communication skills and obviously can't verbalize when they feel stressed.
"It's important with toddlers to pay attention to their behavioral changes as indications of stress," says Julianne Neely, clinical social worker and therapist at Individual and Family Connection in Chicago.
Signs of stress in toddlers are often shown through regression in behaviors like sleep, using the potty, attachment to objects and an increase in tantrums.
Tami Conway, a Chicago mother of two, witnessed her then-3-year-old daughter's stress in the midst of their new baby being born and the opening of her new business.
"As a direct result of my high stress between the baby and work, I saw an increase in my daughter's anxiety and stress through her suddenly changed behaviors and increased tantrums," says Conway.
"As soon as I was able to relax and be present, I immediately saw the change in my daughter."
According to Neely, stress trickles down to kids.
"Your child doesn't realize your stress isn't theirs. It's important to be in check with your own stress levels and the way you handle it so it's not passed along unnecessarily to your children," says Neely.
As small kids become school age, they encounter a new world that often can create stress on top of anything that might be happening at home.
"Anything that is a stress for adults is a stress for a child. Whether it's moving to a new home and school or marital issues at home, kids are strongly impacted by changes in their routine," says Sladoje.
Signs of stress for little kids are similar to toddlers with more angry outbursts, changes in sleep or appetite, reverting to bedwetting or night-waking, and regressive behaviors like clinging or separation anxiety.
Jennifer Evers, a Naperville mom of two, experienced a double whammy between the end of her marriage and the sudden loss of her father.
"To have two traumatic events happen to our family at once, I had to set aside feelings of failing my daughters and become open to outside help that the kids needed," says Evers about her 4- and 7-year-old daughters.
"We now go to therapy to help cope with our stresses and talk about how we are feeling," Evers says. "We've learned breathing techniques and even tried some yoga to help calm everyone down."
Sladoje says it is important for this age group to label feelings and to ask specific questions.
"Ask if they are sad or angry and be OK with them saying yes," she says.
Connect with your child every day and ask specific questions about their day, Sladoje says. "If they express concerns, help give them the message of what they can do differently to make it better next time."
When kids enter middle school, it can feel like their whole world is changing. Between hormones, body changes, peer pressure, bullying and academic pressures, stress is a likely part of a pre-teen's life.
Signs of stress in this age group are often withdrawal, isolation, demeanor changes and general negativity.
"Take the time to really listen when your child expresses feelings of being nervous, anxious or upset. These are cues parents tend to overlook," says Neely. "When your child is saying negative statements about themselves or others, that's a good indication that something isn't right."
Veronica Arreloa, from Chicago's West Ridge neighborhood, experienced it with her 9-year-old daughter.
"My daughter didn't use the term stress, but told us that she was feeling worried and upset about upcoming testing at her school.
She felt pressure from teachers and older students to perform well, which caused her to become incredibly anxious," says Arreloa.
"We really tried to talk to her about her feelings and minimize her worry. It helped relieve the pressure she was putting on herself," Arreloa says.
As pre-teens learn to navigate on their own, it's key for parents to act as a guide for them but not fix the problem.
"Encourage your kids to take responsibility for their own problems in this age group," says Neely. "Think of it as a test run for life."