Herald Journal Columns
May 23, 2005, Herald Journal

Managing stress in children

By JENNI SEBORA

Stress. It’s the number one health problem in America, according to the 2000 annual Gallup poll and the 2000 Integra survey.  

Seventy to 90 percent of all visits to primary care physicians are stress-related, according to the polls.

The website www.kidshealth.org defines stress as a function of the demands placed upon us and our ability (or perceived ability) to meet these demands.  Pressures can come from the outside, as well as from within.

The website further noted that pressure we place on ourselves can be very significant because there is often a discrepancy between what we think we ought to be doing and what we are actually doing in our lives.

Stress is a part of life and professionals tell us some stress is even good for us. The website, www.kidshavestresstoo.org said that stress keeps our bodies and minds alert and can even boost performance levels.  But too much stress can be overwhelming.  And that’s true for kids, as well.

Kids have stress, too. Even very young children have worries. Young children can put stress and pressure on themselves in school, in athletics, and other activities.

Stress can affect the physical, emotional, social, and intellectual well-being of our children. It can interfere with their motivation, attention, memory, perception and their entire learning process, www.smilemania.com noted.

Family, school pressures, friendship issues, and family break-ups are some of the major stressors children may encounter, www.kidshavestresstoo.org said.  But even everyday triggers, such as being hungry, tired, or feeling rushed, can take their toll on little ones, the website noted.

School-related stress is the most prevalent, untreated cause of academic failure in school and is believed to afflict 6 to 10 percent of children a year, according to the website www.smilemania.com.

For preschoolers, separation from parents is the greatest cause of anxiety, www.kidshealth.org said.

The website also noted that well-meaning parents may add stress to their child’s life. High-achieving parents may often have great expectations for their children, who lack their parents’ capabilities and/or motivation. Parents who push their children to excel in sports or other activities or who enroll their children in too many activities can cause stress and frustration on their children if they don’t have the same goals, the website said.

Children’s stress level may be raised by what’s going on in the world and in their family’s lives. They can hear parents talk about money issues or about a relative’s illness.  We, as parents, need to be careful of what we discuss when our children are near, www.bam.gov/survival recommends.

The events of Sept. 11, 2001 and the changes in our world since have added to the stress of many children.  Children see television programs and news that can be full of stories about tragedies and bad things, such as tornadoes, hurricanes, kidnapping, war, bombings, and terrorism. They can worry about their safety and the safety of their family, the above website explained.

The website www.kids.health.org recommends talking to our children about what they see and hear, and monitoring what they watch on television, so that we can help them understand what’s going on and reassure them that they are safe.

Recognizing symptoms

It’s not always easy to recognize when a child is stressed out. Short-term behavioral changes, such as mood swings, acting out, changes in sleep patterns, and bedwetting, can be indicators of stress, according to www.kidshealth.org.

The website further noted that some children experience physical effects, including stomachaches and headaches. Others may have trouble concentrating or completing homework, or still others may become withdrawn or spend a lot of time alone.  

Younger children may show signs of reacting to stress by picking up new habits, such as thumb sucking, hair twirling, or nose picking.  Older children may begin to bully, lie, or reject authority.

Helping kids deal with stress

Experts say that proper rest and good nutrition can help increase a child’s coping skills. Dr. Kim Rutherford, on the kidshealth website in March 2002, recommended making time for our children each day.

Whether our children need to talk or just be in the same room with us, we should make ourselves available. Rutherford noted that even as our children get older, this “quality time” is important.

Playing with our children and talking with them about their day is important. By showing an interest in our children’s lives, no matter what their age, we are showing that they are important to us.

The website www.kidshealth.org noted that we can help our children cope with stress by talking with them about what may be causing it, and then working together to come up with some solutions.  Some possibilities may include cutting back on after school activities, spending more time talking with parents and teachers, developing an exercise routine, or keeping a journal.

We can also help our children by anticipating stressful situations and preparing them. For example, let her know ahead of time that she has a doctor appointment, and talk about what will happen there.

The website further noted that feeling some level of stress is normal, and we should let our children know that it’s okay to feel angry, scared, lonely, or anxious and that other people share her feelings and have those same feelings at one time or another.

Books are also another great way to allow young children to identify with characters in stressful situations and learn how to cope. Some titles that the above mentioned website recommends include “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” by Judith Viorst; “Tear Soup” by Pat Schweibert, Chuck DeKlyen, and Taylor Bills; and “Dinosaurs Divorce” by Marc Brown and Laurene Krasny Brown.

There are also great books about children weaning from a pacifier and bottle, potty training, and moving from a crib to a bed, etc., which all can be stressful situations and events for children.

Most parents have the skills necessary to deal with their children’s stress. The website says the time to seek professional attention is when any change in behavior persists or when a child’s stress is causing serious anxiety. It recommends that if a parent or caregiver is unsuccessful after several attempts to get to the source of a child’s troubles, see the child’s doctor and talk to the counselors and teachers at the child’s school. These sources can lead parents to competent professional help for their children.

The Great American Grump Out Day

The fourth annual Great American Grump Out is Wednesday, May 25. It urges people to go for 24 hours without being grumpy or crabby.

Great American Grump Out was started by Janice A. Hathy, who is a graduate of Kent State University with a bachelor of science degree in education. She has developed, produced and conducted workshops and trainings in the areas of stress reduction and human motivation.

The Great American Grump Out encourages America to set aside their frowny faces and grumpy behavior for 24 hours on May 25.  Wouldn’t that be great role modeling for our children?!

Hathy listed some benefits of humor and laughter:  

Humor: increases energy, develops a positive attitude and self-image, improves communication and relationships, helps deal with difficult situations, liberates and enhances one’s creative capabilities motivates and energizes, gives you the feeling of power . . . humor is power.

Laughter: strengthens the immune system, releases stress, aids most, if not all, major systems of the body; gives the heart a good workout, helps prevent heart attacks, counteracts fear, anger and depressions; acts as a panic-blocker.

It takes more muscles to frown than to smile.  It all sounds good to me. Let’s all partake in some humor and laughter.

Have a fun week!