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Stress in Childhood

Updated: Apr 13, 2021

As adults we are very familiar with the feeling of stress but what can be easily overlooked is how much it can also affect children. Everyone responds to stress in different ways and children can experience stress just as much as adults. They may have issues with school work, friendship troubles, relationship issues with parents or perceived pressure put on them by others. A small amount of stress is normal and can help in providing the adrenaline to get them through difficult situations however too much stress can begin to make life very difficult.

Children are rarely able to put into words the stress they are feeling and so adults need to be in tune to the physical and behavioural clues they may show. Different children may show signs of stress in a variety of ways. They may begin to show negative emotions, being irritable and short tempered, anxious or fearful and may even become upset or tearful. Stressed children will have a lot on their mind which may make it more difficult for them to focus their thoughts making them more forgetful, indecisive, confused and finding it hard to concentrate. Negative changes in behaviour may be a key sign, although it may not always indicate stress, a negative change to a child’s behaviour is a clear indication that something is wrong. Lastly a stressed child may experience actual physical symptoms causing them to regularly complain of feeling unwell or wanting to see the school nurse. They may also have disturbed sleep causing them to be more tired during the day or experience a loss of appetite.

For children to be able to effectively manage stress they need to first be able to acknowledge and understand their emotions and be able to feel that their emotions are valid and acceptable whether they are positive or negative. If a child is able to recognise and name the emotion they are feeling then that in turn will help them to know how to deal with it.

In order to learn effective stress management children need to learn how to take control of their feelings and of the subsequent challenging behaviour that may go along with those emotions. There are different strategies and techniques that can be taught that can help a child, strategies that they can take away and use in everyday life, such as:

  • Breathing techniques

  • Expressing themselves in a feelings journal, using words or pictures to put difficult emotions onto paper

  • Finding an adult that they can trust with whom they can talk about what they are feeling

  • Burning energy and ‘letting off steam’ through exercise

  • Feeling their heartbeat, when in a heightened state their heart may beat harder and faster – closing their eyes and just concentrating on their heartbeat and feeling as it slowly calms can help to relax them a little

  • If logistically possible then having their own space to go to in which they can be alone

  • Having someone that they can ask for a hug from

  • Being taught to try optimistic thinking, teaching children to tell themselves “I can do this”

It is also important that all the adults that spend time with the child are working together to create positive role models. If children see the adults around them dealing with stressful situations by blowing up and getting angry or by melting down and crying hysterically then they will learn by example. The adults that children are most in contact with i.e. parents and teachers need to be able to model calm reactions to stressful situations.

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