What are Stress and anxiety in children? How to help a child with stress and anxiety?
Stress is defined as a set of the body’s reactions to stimuli (good or bad) that threaten its equilibrium. Environmental situations can trigger stress and can be either event-dependent or independent. In small amounts, stress can be good. But, excessive stress can affect the way a child thinks, acts, and feels.
Excessive stress can lead to lower learning capacity in schoolchildren and difficulty in social interaction. When the child remains under the influence of stressful events for a long period of time, he or she can develop symptoms of stress, causing imbalance. If the stressful event is not eliminated and the symptoms are not treated adequately, they can persist in adulthood, leading to a series of illnesses, like depression, hypertension, skin diseases, and leukemia.
Anxiety is another basic emotion present from infancy. It is the response of the brain to danger and is an alerting signal. Symptoms of anxiety in children can range from mild to severe. Children can feel anxious about different things at different ages. Many of these worries are a normal part of growing up. From the age of around 6 months to 3 years, it’s very common for young children to have separation anxiety.
They may become clingy and cry when separated from their parents or carers. This is a normal stage in a child’s development and should stop at around age 2 to 3. It’s also common for preschool-age children to develop specific fears or phobias.
Common fears in early childhood include
- blood, and the dark.
These fears usually go away gradually on their own. There may also be other times in a child’s life when they feel anxious. For example, many children feel anxious when going to a new school or before tests and exams. Some children feel shy in social situations and may need support with this.
Anxiety becomes a problem for children when it starts to get in the way of their everyday life. If you go to any school at exam time, all the children will be anxious, but some may be so anxious that they don’t manage to get to school that morning. Severe anxiety like this can harm children’s mental and emotional well-being, affecting their self-esteem and confidence. They may become withdrawn and go to great lengths to avoid things or situations that make them feel anxious.
Physical symptoms of stress or anxiety
Physical symptoms of stress or anxiety can include decreased appetite, other changes in eating habits, headache, new or recurrent bedwetting, nightmares, sleep disturbances, upset stomach or vague stomach pain, or other physical symptoms with no physical illness
Emotional or behavioral symptoms may include anxiety, worry, not able to relax, new or recurring fears (fear of the dark, fear of being alone, fear of strangers), clinging, unwillingness to let parents out of sight, anger, crying, whining, unable to control emotions, aggressive or stubborn behavior, going back to behaviors present at a younger age and not wanting to participate in family or school activities.
Common causes of stress and anxiety may include worrying about schoolwork or grades, juggling responsibilities, such as school and work or sports, overpacked schedules, problems with friends, bullying, or peer group pressures, changing schools, moving, or dealing with housing problems or homelessness, having negative thoughts about themselves, going through body changes, in both boys and girls, seeing parents go through a divorce or separation, money problems in the family or living in an unsafe home or neighborhood.
How to help a child with stress and anxiety?
If a child is experiencing anxiety, there are things that parents and carers can do to help. Some of them are:
- First and foremost, it’s important to talk to your child about their anxiety or worries. Reassure them and show them you understand how they feel. If your child is old enough, it may help to explain what anxiety is and the physical effects it has on our bodies. It may be helpful to describe anxiety as being like a wave that builds up and then ebbs away again. As well as talking to your child about their worries and anxiety, it’s important to help them find solutions.
- Create a relaxed home atmosphere and commit to a routine. Family dinners or game nights can prevent anxiety and help relieve stress.
- Make your home a calm, safe, and secure place to come to.
- Monitor your child’s television shows, video games, and books.
- Allow for opportunities where your child can have control over a situation in their life.
- Give your child a heads up on any anticipated changes and talk through the new scenarios with them. For example, if you will be taking a new job in a new city, what will that mean for them in terms of a new school, new friends, and a new home?
- Involve your child in social and sports activities where they can succeed.
- Children of all ages find routines reassuring, so try to stick to regular daily routines where possible.
- If your child is anxious because of distressing events, such as a bereavement or separation, look for books or films that will help them to understand their feelings.
- Try not to become overprotective or anxious.
- Practice simple relaxation techniques with your child, such as taking 3 deep, slow breaths, breathing in for a count of 3, and out for 3.
- Distraction can be helpful for young children. For example, if they are anxious about going to nursery, play games on the way there, such as seeing who can spot the red cars.
- Turn an empty tissue box into a “worry” box. Get your child to write about or draw their worries and “post” them into the box. Then you can sort through the box together at the end of the day or week.