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