Stress is a normal, unavoidable part of life. It’s even good for a child to experience small amounts of manage- able stress, such as frustration with learning a new skill, dealing with being late to a birthday party due to traffic, or worrying about saying the wrong line in a school play. Unfortunately, when a child experiences frequent, chronic, or overwhelming stress, survival mode becomes the norm instead of an occasional occurrence, and the brain and body stay in a stressed state. These chronic stress patterns can hamper healthy brain development, leading to an imbalance where the limbic system be- comes overdeveloped and hyper-reactive, and the PFC remains underdeveloped. This brain imbalance can create signi cant mental and emotional issues such as agitation, anxiety, impulsiveness, hyperactivity, an in- ability to focus, lacking empathy, low emotional control, poor decision-making, and weak problem-solving abili- ties. Chronic stress can also cause a host of minor, and sometimes signi cant, physical health problems, such as an impaired immune system, slowed growth, aches and pains, and poor digestion.
How can you tell if a child is over-stressed? Look for physical and behavioral symptoms. Physical problems might include stomachaches, frequent headaches, acne, dizziness, bowel problems, bedwetting, change in appe- tite or food cravings, and frequent or lengthy illnesses. Behavioral symptoms of stress are varied as well: a child might become clingy; the quality of his or her school work might change; new compulsive habits such as hair twirl- ing, nose picking, hand washing, or thumb sucking might develop; sleep patterns might change (too much or too little); mood swings might increase; a child might begin to lie or become quiet or secretive; eating habits might change. If there is any notable regression or worrisome change in a child’s behavior and/or decline in physical health, it is important to step back and consider whether too much stress is the root cause.
How Can You Help a Stressed Child?
- First and foremost, spend extra time listening. Your careful, quiet listening helps a child feel heard and validated.
- Hold space for big emotions. This means being a compassionate, nonjudgmental witness while a child expresses him- or herself. Encourage the child to verbalize feelings, draw them, and/or move his/her body.
- Set limits, such as, “When you’re angry, don’t touch anyone or anything.” Or, “Would it help to run up and down the hall for a few minutes?”
- Instead of interjecting interpretation or drawing your own conclusions, support the child’s developing ability to analyze and solve problems by re ecting what you’ve heard and asking exploratory questions.
- Remember, questions that only require a “yes” or “no” answer can stop conversations in their tracks. And “Why” questions can feel pointed or punitive instead of caring.
- Ask open-ended questions that inspire sharing and re ection, such as, “How are you feeling?” or “What was your day like today?” Or simply invite them to “Tell me more.”
- Re ect back what you heard, such as, “It sounds like you had a very frustrating time and got hurt by your friends today.”
- Notice how your child is feeling and re ect on the emotions expressed, “It sounds/looks like you’re really angry (sad, hurt, worried, etc.).”
- Ask for thoughts about why that happened and ideas for possible solutions. Let them know you can offer help if they want it.
For more advice about how to help your stressed child or student, read, The Imagine Project: Empowering Kids to Rise Above Drama, Trauma, and Stress (Yampa Valley Publishing)