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Stressed Out Kids? Signs and Strategies

Life is full of unpredictable changes. Some can be exciting and motivating, while others can lead to increased stress, poor health, and anxious feelings.

Stress is an automatic physical, mental, and emotional response to challenging events. It’s a normal part of everyone’s life, including the lives of children.

Children have faced many new and potentially stressful situations during the COVID-19 pandemic. For some, there have been changes in school and activity routines, family changes with moves or a parent’s career disruption, and concerns over their health or the loss of a loved one.

Children, especially teenagers, aren’t likely to ask their parents to help them manage their stress. Sometimes, they don’t even recognize that they are feeling stressed out.

As a caregiver, you might notice something is off before they do. Helping your children manage their stress can lead to more balanced and healthier lives.

Signs of stress in children

Children aren’t miniature adults, and they may express stress in different ways than you might expect.

Here are a few signs that your children may be stressed out or could use some extra support:

  • Emotional outbursts or increased irritability
    Stress leads to stronger feelings of anger and irritability. Your children may have emotional outbursts that are inconsistent with their previous behavior or the current situation.
  • Trouble sleeping
    Worries and fears seem to come out during bedtime. Children who are stressed may have trouble falling or staying asleep, or start having nightmares.
  • Withdrawing from others
    Children who are stressed may want to spend more time alone and not interact with friends or family.
  • Struggles with school
    Significant changes in your children’s school performance can be a sign of stress. Stress makes it harder for children to focus during the school day or when doing homework. Emotional outbursts and anger at school can cause trouble with friends and classmates.
  • Frequent headaches or stomachaches
    When children are stressed or anxious, their bodies release the hormone cortisol into the blood. This can trigger abdominal cramps and headaches.
  • Increased defiance
    Children under stress may feel angry or overwhelmed. They are seeking ways to get out of the situation that is causing them to feel uncomfortable. This can lead to defiant and stubborn behaviors.

Here are a few tips for managing children’s defiant behaviors:

  • Set expectations
    Children thrive on routines and set expectations. Outline examples of behaviors you will and will not tolerate.
  • Act, don’t react.
    The expression of emotion also is human. Take a deep breath and calmly correct behavior. Don’t mirror their anger level. Maintain calm and set clear expectations. Maintain consistency.
  • Pick your battles.
    If their behavior is simply irritating but not dangerous or illegal, try to ignore it. The moment they do something positive, complement them. Sometimes children simply want a reaction, so try to react to the positive behaviors instead of the negative.
  • Focus on two or three behaviors only.
    Children may feel overwhelmed or inadequate if you try to correct every concerning behavior. A focused approach will get better and quicker results in improved behaviors.

Coping with stress

While all stress cannot be eliminated, you can prevent excess stress from affecting your children’s lives by:

  • Establishing and keeping routines
  • Finding times to talk
  • Encouraging a return to previous activities
  • Allowing choices
  • Finding humor in daily life
  • Playing as a family
  • Encouraging healthy diet and sleep habits
  • Practicing deep breathing together
  • Enlisting help of children’s teachers
  • Managing your mental health

Causes of Acute Stress Disorder

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