Our ideal image of childhood is one filled with bicycle rides, baseball games and sleepovers not worry, stress and overcommitment. Unfortunately, today's kids are often anxious about many aspects of their daily lives. As a parent, you can help your child live happier and healthier by understanding common childhood stressors and taking steps to address them.
What's the problem?
Are today's children more stressed out than past generations? "It would seem that way," says Carrie Cadwell, PsyD., HSPP, Indiana Psychological Association Public Education Campaign Liaison. She reports that according to the American Psychological Association's 2013 Stress in America survey, teens on average are reporting an increase in stress levels, with school ranking as the single biggest source of stress. In fact, during the school year teens reported higher stress levels than adults. School stress can relate to social relationships as well as academic performance, says Dr. Cadwell.
In addition, "Social media and electronic device use is a new source of stress that parents and children have had to figure out," says Austin P. Wade, B.A., practicum student at the University of Indianapolis Psychological Services Center. Stress can come from family disagreements about screen time, online "trolling" and bullying or ongoing pressure to present one's "best self" at all times.
Stress is not a negative word per se says Dr. Cadwell. Kids may experience positive stress, or "eustress," for events such as getting ready for prom or moving up a grade. However, Cadwell says the consequences of excessive stress can include fatigue, loss of energy or engagement, reduced interest in social activities, difficulties eating and sleeping and a decline in school performance. "Stress is also linked to greater vulnerability to physical conditions, such as the common cold, other viruses and autoimmune diseases," notes Wade.
Dr. Cadwell offers parents five practical suggestions to help prevent or reduce stress in their children's lives.
Parents should promote healthy eating patterns and ensure their children get plenty of exercise and sleep. These lifestyle factors play into the physical impacts of stress and how well kids and teens can manage it.
Parents should create opportunities for children to talk to them in one-to-one settings. Participating in an activity the child enjoys such as a video game creates a shared space that can make them more likely to open up.
Adults must teach children behaviors that will help them balance work, school and self- care. Parents have to model these behaviors as well.
Rituals and routines
Traditions such as family dinner or game night are important in creating a "safe harbor" for children. Kids are typically better able to manage stressors when home life is more predictable and stable.
Specific rules for phones and social media should be established. By creating "unplugged" times in the evening, parents can help kids learn to limit the 24/7 barrage of stressors that come with technology.
What other resources are available?
For parents wishing to learn more about helping kids manage stress, there are many excellent resources online. Wade recommends the websites maintained by the National Institute of Mental Health (www.nimh.nih.gov) and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (www.nichd.nih.gov).
Finally, parents shouldn't feel like they have to go it alone. "When stress or anxiety starts to get in the way of the child's ability to function at school, with family and/or with friends, it's probably time to consult a mental health professional," says Wade. Primary care specialists should have referral information to assist parents searching for services.
Don't stress about childhood stress, but do put these strategies in place within your family dynamic and don't hesitate to access professional help if necessary. Handling the many demands and pressures that daily life can deliver is a skill one that kids can learn early and employ the rest of their life.