Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Stress and Children

Stress is the body's reaction to a physical or emotional situation that requires a person to adapt or change. Stress is a normal part of everyday life and can be positive  (birthday party, new pet, birth of a sibling) or negative (separation, rejection, parent losing a job, death of a family member). Children respond to stress differently than adults. Their responses to stress are based on what they have seen or experienced and most have limited coping skills; meaning that the smallest changes can have a very large impact on a child's feelings of safety and security. Even everyday family obligations, practices, events, and routines can create stress and tension for a young child.

Stress in children often manifests in an overt, physical manner, and includes some of the following behaviors:
  • crying
  • sweaty palms
  • running away
  • aggressive or defensive outbursts
  • rocking or self-comforting
  • headaches
  • stomachaches 
  • stuttering
  • nervous fine motor behaviors: hair twirling or pulling, chewing and sucking, biting of skin or fingernails
  • toileting accidents 
  • sleep disturbances (nightmares, 
  • decreased appetite (or other noticeable changes in eating habits)
  • depression or avoidance
  • excessive worrying
  • hyper-vigilance
  • clingy behavior or persistant concern about "what comes next"
  • regressive behaviors (those of an earlier developmental stage)

Below is a worksheet for children which helps them identify stress in their own body. 

It is important to recognize that children will exhibit many of these signs at different points in their lives, as a natural response to home or school situations, and life events. However, persistent signs of stress, which are disrupting a child's academic progress or significantly affecting a child's health or home environment should be addressed by a professional. 

What parents, teachers, and adults can do:
  • help children identify their feelings and respond to stress in healthy ways
  • provide a safe and secure environment
  • be selective about your child's media exposure (news, television, internet)
  • encourage expression of concerns, worries, and fears
  • allow opportunities to make choices and have some control around decision-making
  • encourage physical activity
  • be aware of situations and events that are stressful to your child
  • help children identify coping strategies (ask for help, walk away, etc.)
  • teach children relaxation techniques (count backwards, play with play dough, imagine your favorite place in your mind)
  • practice positive self-talk ("I can do this")
  • recognize signs of unresolved or continuing stress (on-going nightmares, new occurrence of bedwetting, etc.)
  • keep children informed of necessary and anticipated changes
  • seek professional help or advice when signs of stress do not decrease or disappear 

I highly recommend Feelings Charts for children, which show faces with a variety of feelings. These are very useful for helping children identify their emotions. I have included two different types of Feelings Charts as a downloadable attachments to this post. The Simple Feelings Chart is from the Conscious Discipline website, which has a number of great resources for parents and teachers. 

I have also posted a fun activity in the Parents section of my website, which gives step-by-step directions for making your own stress ball! This activity is great for all ages, K-12 (young children will require parent assistance). Stress balls can be decorated in a lot of fun ways!

Please contact me if you have any questions, comments, or suggestions for Counseling at Natomas Charter School.

Thank you!