How Stress Affects Kids and How to Help Them Cope

Feeling stressed has almost become the norm for many overstretched, busy American families. Think about it—when was the last time your family—or any family, for that matter— enjoyed a long stretch of together time without being glued to a smart phone or other electronic device or looking at your watch?

Although one type of stress called 'eustress' can actually be positive and productive—eustress is the kind of stress that's healthful or helps you feel fulfilled (for example, the kind you experience when you do enjoyable exercise or challenge yourself in some way)—many suffer far too often from negative stress. All that stress leads us to cope in unhealthy ways that take their toll on overall health and wellbeing. Unfortunately, stress is not just a problem for adults. There's evidence that teens are also vulnerable to stress and its effects.

The latest Stress in America SurveyTM by the American Psychological Association (APA) polled adults as well as 1,018 teens, ages 13 to 17, who live in the United States about stress over the previous month. While American adults continue to report higher stress levels than what they believe to be healthy, the survey also reveals that the patterns of unhealthy stress behaviors we see in adults impact teens as well. According to the survey, many American teens report experiencing stress at unhealthy levels, appear uncertain in their stress management techniques and experience symptoms of stress in numbers that mirror adults' experiences. Stress during the teen years also seems to take a toll on activity, nutrition and lifestyle behaviors that no doubt contribute to current and future habits and health.

Stress impacts teens in myriad ways. The survey shows, for example, that 36% of teens report fatigue/feeling tired; 35% report lying awake at night; 32% report they have headaches; and 23% report skipping a meal.

The report also reveals that teens are less aware than adults about the impact stress can have on their physical and mental health. In fact, 42% of teens say they often don't know what to do to manage their stress or they aren't sure if they are doing enough to manage it. Fifty-one percent report that while stress management is important to them, more than 1 in 10 report they never set aside time to manage stress. And 55% of teens say they set aside time to manage stress only a few times a month at most. Although 37% exercise or walk and 28% play sports to manage stress, many teens cope with stress by engaging in sedentary behaviors. For example, a lot of teens report turning to screens to cope with stress. In fact, 46% report they play video games, 43% surf the internet or go online and 36% watch TV or movies to cope with stress.

When it comes to teen girls especially, the report reveals that stress impacts behaviors that relate to food. For example, 39% say they eat too much or too little, 35% report overeating or eating unhealthy foods, 31% report skipping a meal and 22% report a change in appetite when stressed.

It's clear from this APA survey that both the young and old (and those of us in between) are vulnerable to the effects of stress. Whether it's is related to school or work, relationships, finances, or any combination of factors, stress is an inevitable part of everyone's life. If we often perceive all that happens around us in negative ways, and it makes us cope in less-than-healthy ways, stress can take a huge toll on us (not to mention those around us). Studies suggest that stress can have negative effects on our eating and fitness habits and on our ability to fall asleep—and stay asleep. As discussed in the Stress in AmericaTM survey, studies also suggest stress can weaken immunity and exhaust the body, increase inflammation in the body (and thereby increase cardiovascular disease risk), and make us more vulnerable to colds.

Because of the many perils of stress, it's imperative that parents find ways to manage stress positively and productively. A tall order, I know. But because our kids see what we do and how we handle different situations and stressors, for better our worse, we need to model as best we can positive ways of perceiving and coping with stress. If we prioritize finding positive and productive ways to handle challenges, it's more likely our kids will see our example and learn to cope better as well.

While there's no one size fits all strategy to manage stress, a combination of behaviors can help us all cope better and enhance our overall health and well being. Staying physically active, engaging in exercise and sitting less can temper stress. Finding activities we enjoy—especially outside in the sunshine—can boost mood and help our hearts be healthier. Eating a wide variety of nutrient-rich foods from all the basic food groups—whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean protein foods, low fat dairy and healthy fats—throughout the day and at regular intervals can help steady blood sugar levels and have mood-boosting and other benefits. Connecting with others regularly, laughing and meditating can also help. Getting enough sleep by having regular, consistent bedtimes can also help us avoid fatigue that no-doubt can in and of itself contribute to unhealthy behaviors.

Sometimes, no matter what we do, stress will get the best of us. But when we try our best to cope and nothing seems to work, there's no shame in seeking help from a qualified health professional (eg a psychologist). To find one near you, visit the APA website.

How do you and your kids manage stress?

Image of mother and son doing yoga exercise at home via shutterstock.

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