Tossing and turning all night. Knuckle-cracking. Overeating. Procrastinating. Exercising obsessively to relieve anxiety. Does this sound like you? Or is it your child?
Kids today carry more stress than in the past, says Jerry Wilde, assistant professor of educational psychology at Indiana University East and author of several books on kids and stress management.
“There are just so many more things today kids are involved in,” he says, citing social networking as an example. “The world is moving faster and is more nuanced and complex. Kids haven’t changed, but the world has.”
When young children are overly stressed, they may show physical signs such as sleeping more, reverting to thumb-sucking, soiling their clothes, and developing a nervous tick such as coughing, fidgeting with hair, or rapidly blinking their eyes, according to Jim Grant, author of I Hate School! Other signs parents should look for include crying easily and frequently, needing constant praise and reassurance, and becoming shy and withdrawn, Grant writes.
Older kids might show dramatic mood swings and heightened aggression and develop illnesses such as stomach problems and chronic headaches.
What has children so worried? A falling-out with a best friend, a low grade on a test, a late start on a large project, a fear that their parents will get divorced. Some stress is real, such as a parent being diagnosed with a serious illness. Some anxiety may be petty drama blown out of proportion.
Parents can help by talking to their kids, finding out what’s worrying them—knowing it may take some prying to get the truth—and helping children find solutions to eliminate or manage the stress.
“We create our own stress,” Wilde says, noting that if 10 students get a B on a test, some will be thrilled while others will be devastated. “Stress comes from our own thoughts.”
Parents can also help minimize their kids’ stress by encouraging them to maintain healthy habits, such as exercising regularly, eating a nutritious diet, and limiting caffeine. When kids are overwhelmed by major school projects, parents can help the work seem more manageable by breaking it into a series of smaller tasks.
Wilde makes the following suggestions for parents wanting to help their kids de-stress:
Make sure your child isn’t taking on too much. “Some kids have way too many activities,” he says. “They don’t have any down time, any time just to be kids. Kids need down time, just like adults.” Parents can help their child pick and choose the best activity to focus on, preferably one that relieves stress instead of contributing to it.
Help your child put problems in perspective. One low grade on a test isn’t going to doom a child to a poor report card. It’s OK not to be good at everything. It’s normal to miss a spelling word even when you studied that exact word at home. It may be tempting for parents to chide their child over mistakes, but be aware of how your child takes criticism. “As long as your kid is putting forth a best effort, that’s all you can ask.”
Use an imaginary time machine. It’s an exercise Wilde has used for years. He’ll ask a child who is stressed out about something like not being in with the cool crowd to imagine she’s moving 20 years ahead in a time machine. “Do you think you’ll be thinking about this party or whether this boy in middle school likes you?” Often, the child laughs, he says. It helps them realize they are putting too much importance on something that’s trivial in the larger picture.
Remind him that there are things in life he can’t control. With divorce, kids need to be reminded it’s not their fault and it doesn’t change how their parents feel about them. Yes, life will be different. But he can still be happy.
Get help. “If you are concerned enough to think you might need to seek professional advice, then seek professional advice,” Wilde says. A school counselor is a good place to start, and it’s often up to parents to start a dialogue. “School folks are highly trained, but often afraid to overstep bounds,” he says.
Stress is a part of life, and all kids will experience anxiety at some point. By helping your child figure out strategies to cope with stress, you’ll equip him with a skill that will help him through the most difficult times in his life.