The American Psychological Association (APA) released results from a survey that reveal that parents are out of touch when it concerns their kids’ stress levels. The APA reports the greatest stress sources for kids are related to school pressure and family finances, and that parents often underestimate how stressed their kids really are. We talked to Children’s Hospital Boston psychiatrist Stuart Goldman, MD, about how parents can help manage their child’s stress and how they can be more in sync with what’s bothering their kids.
Why aren’t parents more perceptive to their child’s feelings of stress?
Teen and tweens are known for being inexplicably moody or irritable. When a child does the stereotypical stomping up the stairs accompanied by a loud, “Leave me alone!” it’s often perceived as moodiness, when in fact it could actually be a sign of stress, anxiety or depression. From a psychiatric point of view, parents under appreciate how a child internalizes problems (anxiety or depression), in contrast to when the child externalizes problems (misbehavior).
What signs indicate a heightened level of stress in a child?
Be aware of changes in a child’s behavior, such as aggressiveness, acting much younger than she is or no longer enjoying the things she used to. Irritableness, headaches, stomach aches and fatigue are also signs of stress. These symptoms indicate that something of significance may be going on, and if they go unnoticed, they may progress into more serious problems.
What are the long-term health implications of stress?
With a longer-term stress disorder, sadness can turn into depression and worries may turn into an anxiety disorder. It’s also thought by many that stress can compromise general health or immune functioning, resulting in less resistance to disease.
What can parents do to be more in tune with their children’s stress?
As children grow older, they are constantly seeking more independence. The idea of them requesting help from their parents flies in the face of the greater autonomy they seek. Parents must be sensitive to the subtle or not-so-subtle behavior of their kids and know to be concerned if the degree of change is great. Take notice in the difference of your child’s behavior of when she is in school as opposed to when she is on vacation. This is a great way to assess if school pressure is adding stress to your child’s life.
How can parents keep their own stress from affecting their kids?
Children need to be realistically included in the difficulties a family is facing. Parents need to reassure their children the best they can and need to know when kids should be insulated to a certain degree. Parents have the idea that if they don’t talk about their problems (marital problems, finances) that their kids won’t know about them. The reality is that kids invariably know much earlier on about these problems than parents think they do.
How can parents teach their kids to manage stress?
Feeling stress is part of life and parents need to teach their kids that no one leads a stress-free life. Feeling pressure and anxiety is normal and you need to teach your kids not to be afraid of stress. Help your kids learn perspective. Ask them how they will feel about an issue that’s stressing them out in 10 hours or 10 months, rather than the 10 next minutes that they are focusing on. Here are some tools you can teach your kid:
- Take the opportunity to talk about what’s stressing you out and share the weight of it with other people, such as friends, family and appropriate social networking.
- Parents really have to remember to listen and be patient. Most kids just don’t jump into things. Ask questions like, “ I hear there’s a lot going on at school these days?” Follow it by listening and your child can open up.
- Make time for things that matter to your child, such as playing games, reading a book and hanging out with friends.
- Use constructive positive activities to get stress relief, such as walking the dog, throwing out old useless junk, volunteering, physical exercise and relaxation exercises.
Goldman recommends that parents take time twice a day for quick relaxation exercises. Here are some relaxation exercises that he recommends:
- Guided visual imagery
- Progressive muscle relaxation – this is especially easy for kids to learn
- Listening to peaceful music