STRESS! To most American adults, the word “stress” brings images of paying bills, demands at work and children with school, homework and multiple extra-curricular activities. In some cases, there are even more stressful situations such as relationship problems, separation or divorce, sick or hospitalized family members and the loss of loved ones. Many parents may be so consumed with their own stress that they are not aware of the stress being experienced by their children. Other parents simply think that children are resilient and that the challenges of childhood and adolescence are just part of growing up.

Ruth Hamblen, prevention services manager, with Le Bonheur Center for Children and Parents explains common causes of stress and how to help your child cope.

In a recent study conducted by WebMD, 60 percent of parents rated their children’s stress level at or below 4 on a scale where 10 was the highest level of stress. However, the same study identified negative behaviors in children that are possibly linked to stress including:

  • increased arguing with a parent or sibling
  • increased whining or crying
  • appearing worried or anxious
  • physical symptoms such as head and stomach aches, sleeping problems including increased nightmares, and changes in eating habits.

Children in American culture are being exposed to more adult experiences at an earlier age than in the past. Expectations of children in school have increased with performance-driven testing. Kindergarten, for example, used to be a year preparing for “real school.” Now, children who start kindergarten unable to read are considered already “behind.” The average kindergartner has 25 minutes of homework daily. Teens starting high school may be required to choose an educational track that will determine their future education and employment. These same teens are generally focused on the present and may have little awareness of what they want their future to be. Bullying continues to be a problem for both children and adolescents. Over one-third of the parents in the WebMD study reported that their children had been bullied in the last year. Divorce occurs in almost 50 percent of American families resulting in children living between two households sometimes in the middle of unhappy relationships between parents.

All of this is to say that children do experience stress and parents need to be aware of it. Children often absorb the stress of their parent or the home environment. Parents facing major stressful events in their life are undoubtedly trying to “do their best” to protect their children from the effects of those challenging events. As much as they try to protect their children, parents need to be aware that some major life-changing events are going to cause stress to both parents and children and may require parents to get some professional help for both their children and themselves. Some of these events are:

  • Job loss or other financial problems
  • Serious illness of a parent or other family member
  • Separation or divorce
  • Death of a family member or friend.

How to help children cope with stress

Parents can best help their children cope with stress by ensuring that they have a loving, nurturing, and caring relationship. This can be challenging for stressed parents because it requires spending time with their children, talking with them, listening carefully to them and being patient. Spending “down time”, time free of electronics and tasks, shows children that they are important to and cared for by their parents. Non-competitive activities such as free play, exercise, sports, reading and art and music are other ways children can relieve their stress. If parents can find ways to participate in these activities, their child’s sense of well-being will increase.

When to seek help

If stress continues to have negative effects on a child or if the child’s behaviors become too problematic, parents may need to seek professional help. Two good places to start are your child’s pediatrician and your Employee Assistance Program at work. Your child’s teacher or guidance counselor is another possible resource. Finally, parents need to take care of themselves and learn ways to better manage their own stress to decrease its effect on their children. Stress is normal in every life but healthy families, with love and resilience as their foundation, can manage it and have happy and secure children.