Stress in Children and Coping Strategies

Dr. M. Vijayalakshmi, M.D (Peds), M.D (USA), F.A.A.P

"Content Source : American Academy of Pediatrics"
Stress in Children and Coping Strategies

Adults deal with stress in various ways, from helpful strategies like exercise, meditation, long walks, and turning down overtime or weekend work, to harmful ways like drinking smoking and drugs. How do children deal with stress? Depending on their ages and temperaments, some kids withdraw, sulk or zone out, while others act aggressively, talk back, and toss tantrums. Older children may turn to the coping mechanisms that they see their peers using such as smoking, drinking, fighting, sexual activity, eating disorders and delinquency. Adults usually see these activities as behavior problems and underestimate the amount of stress that young people are under today. In actuality, these negative behaviors are often attempts to counter stress, push it under, chill out and make it all go away.

When kids are stressed , their first impulse is to relieve discomfort. They don’t sit down and rationally think about the best way to do it. They find relief by acting impulsively or following the paths most readily available to them, the ones they see other kids taking. Most young people simply don’t know more healthy and effective alternatives. Unless we guide them toward positive ways to relieve and manage stress, they will choose the negative behaviors of their peers or the culture they absorb from the media. They will become caught up in a cycle of negative coping methods and risky behaviors such as using alcohol or drugs to relieve their stress. We need to help them avoid that cycle.

Signs of stress

The following are some of the common signs of stress in children. Keep in mind that many teens and children have some of these signs and do just fine. But they may be signals that you should check in with your children and consider seeking professional help.

  • Slipping school performance
  • Sleep problems
  • Nightmares
  • Returning to less mature behaviors (for e.g. thumb sucking, tantrums)
  • Renewed separation anxiety
  • New bedwetting
  • Irritability, outbursts, or tantrums
  • Hopelessness
  • Change in eating habits
  • Anger
  • Isolation or withdrawal
  • Loss of friends
  • New circle of friends
  • Radically new style of dress
  • Physical symptoms such as belly pain, head aches, fatigue, or chest pain (Always see your pediatrician before assuming these are stress symptoms)
  • Missing school or frequent symptoms
  • Drugs, alcohol or cigarette use
Ten-point stress-management plan

People with a wide range of coping strategies can manage stress more easily. The following plan is designed for adults and children. Remember that when you model healthy coping strategies , your children learn by example.

  • Figure out what the problem is and make it manageable: What is the cause of stress, what is it doing to you, and how can you solve the problem? Learn to break big problems into small manageable parts.
  • Avoid things that bring you down: If we teach kids to identify people who frustrate or bother them, places where stress usually rises, and things that provoke or intensify stress, they can learn when and how to avoid these stressors
  • Let some things go: People who waste their energy worrying about things they can not change don’t have enough energy left over to fix the things they can.
  • Exercise: When people exercise they keep their bodies healthy, think more clearly, and manage stress better because exercise uses up stress energy.
  • Learn to relax your body: People who use deep breathing exercises, changes in body posture, and other relaxation techniques such as yoga and meditation can manage their stress.
  • Eat well: A healthy body helps us manage stress.
  • Sleep well: Getting enough sleep on a consistent basis is essential for good health and keeping stress levels manageable
  • Take instant vacations: Use your mind to imagine a special place whenever you need to escape stress of the moment. Reading, a nature walk, hobbies all offer great instant vacations..
  • Release emotions: We often lock unwanted feelings away, thinking we will deal with them later. But for many people , later never comes. Create outlets for feelings and emotions such as art or music , talking feelings out with someone you trust, writing down feelings in a journal, prayer or meditation, or having a good laugh or cry.
  • Make the world a better place: When we contribute to our communities we can put our own troubles in perspective and build a sense of purpose.

Keep in mind

  • When you choose strategies from this plan, select those you think will work, not those that will impress someone else.
  • The plan can not be imposed on children; it has to be welcomed to be effective. If your children don’t take to one strategy, try another.
  • Don’t stress about the stress-management plan! Don’t feel that your children must be exposed to everything in the plan to manage stress successfully.
  • These points are suggestions that you can adopt for your children and yourself. No one is expected to use all of them all the time.
Getting help

All people, even the most stable, reach their limit sometimes. It is not a sign of weakness on our children’s part , nor is it a sign of poor parenting on our part.

Whenever your children seem troubled, the first step is to reinforce that you are there to be fully supportive. Listen, give hugs, be a sounding board, sometimes even offer advice, but give them hope that things will get better.

If you feel your children need more help than you can give seek the help of your pediatrician who will recommend the most appropriate services you may need.