Now that the back-to-school excitement has worn off, your children are adjusting to new teachers, forming relationships with new classmates, and getting back into the swing of standardized test taking — all of which can contribute to childhood stress.
As an adult, it's easy to idealize childhood and forget that being a kid can be stressful too. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), children and teens report stress levels that rival those of adults. Even happy, healthy children experience stress, but they don't always know what to call it or how to address it. How do you talk to your kids about childhood stress and teach them healthy ways to cope?
Learn the Warning Signs of Childhood Stress
You know when something is off about your child. Maybe your well-behaved son is acting out, your normally extroverted daughter is withdrawn, or your happy-go-lucky kid is suddenly complaining about everything. In addition to negative behavior changes and pessimistic language, common warning signs of childhood stress include:
- Regular complaints of a stomachache or headache, after a physician has ruled out other causes
- Sleeping or eating too much or too little
- Sudden changes in long-term friendships or relationships with family members
However, because children often don't understand what stress is, it can be hard for them to identify and clearly communicate what they're feeling. Instead, they might say they're just worried or confused, or complain that they don't like things about themselves or the world around them.
Open the Lines of Communication
Stress is perfectly normal, and it affects everyone in one way or another. Some stress can even be good because it inspires you to take action. Too much stress, however, is bad for your health, emotional well-being, and relationships. Of course, you know all of this, but your children might not. If you haven't already, now is a great time to talk to your kids about stress: what it is, why it's important to notice when they're feeling stressed, and why they should discuss these feelings with you, a school counselor, a teacher, or another trusted adult.
The more time and attention you give your children, the more likely they'll open up to you about what's happening in their lives and how they feel about it. Routines such as family dinners, game nights, and regular one-on-one activities with parents help kids feel connected, which makes it easier for them to come to you when they're feeling stressed.
When they do come to you with concerns, give them your undivided attention. Hear them out before you respond, and listen carefully to their points of view without getting defensive or rushing to offer unsolicited advice. If you think there's more to the story, encourage them by sharing a similar experience from your own past and how it made you feel.
Teach Healthy Coping Mechanisms
Talking about their stress is a great first step, but kids also need to learn to manage and cope with stress. Here are a few techniques you can share with them.
- Exercising: Encourage your children to go outside and play, and get involved in sports, dance, or other physical activities they enjoy. Also consider family walks, bike rides, pool days, living room dance parties, and other ways to get the whole gang moving.
- Getting enough sleep: School-aged children need 9 to 11 hours of sleep per night. Teenagers need 8 to 10.
- Limiting screen time: Stress is closely linked with the overuse of technology — the pressure to stay "in the know," the drama on social media, and the fact that screens keep users from connecting with the people right in front of them.
Practice What You Preach
Your children listen to your words, but they also pay attention to your actions. If you're visibly stressed, distracted, or snippy, your children might have trouble opening up to you about their own stress. They'll also learn to model that behavior. Instead, make sure your children see you exercising, eating healthy foods, relaxing (sans smartphone), and making time to have fun.
If you're concerned about your child's stress level, start by talking to them about it. If you need additional support, talk to your pediatrician or seek the care of a mental health professional.