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Recently, there’s been a lot of talk about the detrimental effects of stress on children’s health. And it’s not surprising at all.
According to the latest data from the CDC, the average weekly number of children’s mental health-related ED visits has been on the rise over the past year. In 2020 alone, the number of such visits was a shocking 44% higher than in 2019.
Moreover, we know that as many as 35% of American children experience stress-related health issues, which means that more than one-third of U.S. kids don’t have effective methods for coping with external and internal stressors.
But is dealing with stress always a bad thing? Or could a surge in cortisol be helpful in some situations?
This article aims to explore the difference between good stress and bad stress in children, along with everything parents can do to help their kids manage everyday pressures in healthy and productive ways.
How Stress Works
Before we explore the best ways to manage stress in children, it’s essential to understand what happens in the body when it occurs.
Essentially, stress is the natural way the human body reacts to danger, real or imagined. When it senses a threat, the body releases a surge of hormones: adrenaline and cortisol, which cause the heart to beat faster, increase blood flow to muscles and vital organs, create a sense of heightened energy, and cause a state of hyper-awareness in the brain that drives focus.
And, when we really are in danger – being chased by a tiger or having to react in a matter of milliseconds in traffic – stress (otherwise called the “fight or flight response”) is what keeps us alive.
But the bad rep that stress gets doesn’t come from the fact that it’s what’s helping us deal with life-threatening situations. It’s that it often occurs when there’s no real danger possible and that it comes with a series of health issues when experienced chronically.
Chronic Stress & Children’s Health
According to a medical review paper published in 2018, the medical way to define chronic stress is to describe it as a
“process by which any stressor leads to a prolonged release of primary mediators and places children at risk of secondary outcomes and tertiary endpoints associated with allostatic load and overload.”
In other words, chronic stress happens when the body and mind feel under threat for long periods, causing it to continuously release cortisol and adrenaline. The experiences that can lead to children being chronically stressed include both extreme situations (like abuse) and everyday occurrences. These common causes of chronic stress include poverty, bullying, discrimination, or even school pressure.
So how does stress affect children?
Well, there are both physical and psychological symptoms that can occur when a child is feeling stressed. For example, a 2012 medical research paper found that the most common stress symptoms among primary school children included:
- increased heart rate
- feeling sad
- experiencing headaches
- shame and embarrassment
Another interesting discovery made by this study was that among all the children questioned, more than 50% experienced nine or more stress symptoms.
Another study from 2014 discovered that psychological stress in children had the potential of altering immune response. Furthermore, it was found to cause a pathological effect on insulin-producing cells, which is in line with the fact that chronic stress in adults increases the chances of developing conditions such as high blood sugar and poor cardiovascular health.
Can Stress Be a Good Thing?
Now, before you go into a panic and attempt to remove absolutely every possibility of your child experiencing stress, it’s vital to understand that stress, in itself, isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
In fact, psychologists have a specially coined term, “eustress,” that describes the state of body and mind which happens when we experience a quickened heart rate and a surge of hormones but know that we’re not in danger.
For example, a fun challenge may cause us to experience good stress. Or some friendly competition. Even a first date can be considered a source of eustress.
Moreover, acute stress (limited to a short period) can also have positive outcomes. For example, a slight increase in adrenaline can help kids do better on tests and sports competitions, just like a bit of excitement might cause them to do better in a recital or performance.
The main thing is that this type of surge doesn’t last too long and that kids have an opportunity to relax afterward.
How to Recognize the Symptoms of Chronic Stress
So, now that you know that not all stress is harmful and that positive pressure may actually benefit your child, it’s time to learn how to recognize the sign of your child being negatively impacted.
First and foremost, understand that you won’t always be capable of knowing how your children feel – especially when they’re still too young to understand their own emotions. But, you can keep an eye out for any signs of distress that may be a sign of something being amiss.
For example, your kids may not explicitly tell you that they’re feeling anxiety over an upcoming test at school, but you can pay attention to their behavior. You may notice that they’re having mood swings. Or, they may be complaining about headaches and stomachaches. They may not be eating as much as usual, or their sleep patterns may be disturbed. Social disinterest is another common sign of stress, as is extreme irritability.
Any of these symptoms can be a sign that you should have a heart-to-heart with your kid. That way, you can work together to identify what’s causing them to feel anxious.
Effective Ways for Children to Handle Stress
Once you have an understanding of what’s going on with your child that’s causing them stress, you can start working together towards finding healthy coping mechanisms.
Most people have different preferences, but it’s good to know that there are some universally effective stress management techniques that you can try.
For example, physical exercise makes for a great way to unwind. So does heading into nature. Alternatively, you may find that your child enjoys having a creative outlet, listening to music, or doing something silly that will encourage them to laugh and let loose.
You might also try to incorporate mindfulness practices, breathing exercises, and muscle-relaxing techniques into your child’s routine. While you shouldn’t expect a 5-year-old to take up meditation or yoga, you can help them become more aware of their emotions from early on.
It’s also essential that you set an example of healthy ways to cope with stress. Don’t just expect your child to talk about their feelings if you never do the same. Instead, try to build an open relationship with them, where you openly express your emotions and inquire about theirs (without any judgment involved).
Finally, if you notice that your child isn’t doing that great because of stress, don’t hesitate to seek professional help. A fresh pair of eyes and a different approach might just help your kids understand their everyday challenges better. And, it may encourage them to take up stress management habits that will promote their emotional wellbeing.
As you’re well aware, parenthood comes with plenty of trials. And helping your children learn how to manage stress is sure to be one of those challenges.
But, while talking to them about the goings-on in their lives, teaching them healthy coping mechanisms, and being there for them at all times do make a difference, it’s also good to remember that not all stress has to be bad.
Sometimes, the best way to deal with stress is to teach your kids how to reframe it into something positive. For example, instead of letting them think they’re anxious about their upcoming soccer game, why not ask them if they might be excited? Or, instead of allowing them to worry about their grades, why not teach them the importance of not comparing themselves to others?
In the end, such a positive approach is sure to help them deal with everyday difficulties more effectively. And, perhaps even more importantly, it might also help them prevent feeling overwhelmed by life’s challenges due to unrealistic self-imposed expectations.