Coping with Child Stress

What causes stress for your child and how to help.

Stress is the body's physical, chemical, and emotional reaction to an overwhelming, confusing, or exciting situation. Children of all ages can experience stress, but how they respond to it depends on their age, temperament, and family environment, says Ellen Perrin, MD, FAAP, professor of pediatrics at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in Boston.

Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about stress in children, and information about how you can help your child:

What causes a child to experience stress?

Kids experience two different types of stress, says Bettie B. Youngs, PhD, author of Stress and Your Child: Helping Kids Cope With the Strains and Pressures of Life (Fawcett Columbine, 1995).

The first is normative stress, which occurs at different stages of a child's development. Learning to walk, talk, use the toilet, and make friends can be stressful for a child. But these are productive forms of anxiety in that they help a child grow and become more independent.

The second kind of stress is life-change stress, and it's typically more confusing and upsetting to children. Events or situations that can trigger life-change stress include:

  • Divorce: When parents divorce, or even when they fight, a child's sense of security is threatened, making him feel alone and scared.
  • Moving: Children who move from a familiar home, community, school, or group of friends often have feelings of insecurity, confusion, and anxiety.
  • Death: Children are very confused by death, whether it's the death of a family member, friend, or beloved pet. A child may feel that he somehow caused the death, which can create a great deal of guilt and stress.
  • Activity overload: Running from school to athletic activities to music lessons without taking time to relax can cause feelings of anxiety in a child.
  • Peer pressure: Preschoolers and school-age children can be influenced by what other children think and how they act. Conforming to these standards -- and not wanting to be different from others -- can also cause children to feel anxious.

Can stress make my child sick?

An otherwise healthy child will not likely be made physically ill by everyday sources of stress. But the immune systems of children who are overly fatigued, deficient in key nutrients, or don't get enough exercise may become weakened due to stress. In stressful situations these children are more susceptible to illnesses, such as the common cold and the flu.

Make sure your child sleeps well, eats right, and gets a fair amount of exercise. This will help ensure that her body is better equipped to handle feelings of stress and ward off illnesses.

How do children deal with feelings of stress?

Children with a naturally calm temperament are better able to handle change and stress, says Paula Elbirt, MD, FAAP, assistant professor of pediatrics at Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York City. This doesn't mean that these children never experience stress. They do. It just means they're less likely to become overly agitated when a small change is made in their routine.

Fittingly, calm kids tend to sprout from calm families. Because a child mirrors her parents' behavior, if a parent acts stressed, the child will interpret this as an appropriate reaction in certain situations, says Dr. Elbirt.

What can I do to reduce my child's stress?

There are several ways to prevent your child from becoming overly stressed:

  • Dry those tears. Be sure to hold your child when he cries. Babies and children need to know that you're close at hand and available to comfort them.
  • Prepare your child for change. Tell your child in advance if any changes will be occurring in his life. If he'll be starting preschool, for example, visit the school in advance, and help him acclimate to his new surroundings. Or if you're going away on a business trip, be sure to explain where you'll be going and why. The more your child knows, the less confused and anxious she'll be.
  • Establish and enforce rules and routines. Children need structure in their lives, whether it's a regular bedtime, rules about when to do homework, or scheduled times to spend with the family. "Young children need predictable patterns so they don't feel anxious," explains Dr. Elbirt.
  • Keep your child well fed. Children who are deficient in the basic nutrients may be more susceptible to experiencing stress than children who eat a balanced diet. Be sure your child is consuming appropriate portions from all the food groups and minimal amounts of junk food, caffeine, and sugar.
  • Reduce your own stress. Parents do a better job of being parents when they're not stressed, says Dr. Perrin. It's not selfish for a parent to take time out to deal with her own stress; it's very much for the benefit of her child. Studies show that reducing caffeine intake, exercising regularly, setting aside time for family and friends, and taking time out to relax can all help alleviate a parent's level of stress.

Once a child begins to experience stress, chances are she'll continue to feel it -- in varying degrees of intensity -- throughout her life as she struggles with independence, peer relationships, life changes, and other sources of anxiety. Now is the time to instill in your child the ways to handle and minimize such stress.

The information on this Web site is designed for educational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for informed medical advice or care. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat any health problems or illnesses without consulting your pediatrician or family doctor. Please consult a doctor with any questions or concerns you might have regarding your or your child's condition.

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