Stress and anxiety are the fight-and-flight instincts that are your body’s way of responding to emergencies. A large dog barking at you may spark the response. When stressful challenges occur, your body senses danger and responds by releasing hormones into your bloodstream, which speed up your heart, breathing, and other physical processes and prepare you to react fast to avoid the threat. This natural reaction is known as the stress response. It is designed to help you cope with short term stressors. Fears and worries may also set off the instinct.
Symptoms of Stress in Children
While it’s not always easy to recognize when children are stressed, short-term negative behavioral changes can be indications. Children can often express stress through worries, phobias and obsessions.
Common changes can include:
- acting irritable or moods
- withdrawing from activities that used to give them pleasure
- routinely expressing worries
- complaining more than usual about school
- displaying surprising fearful reactions
- clinging to a parent or teacher
- sleeping too much or too little
- eating too much or too little
- complaints of stomachaches and headaches.
With teens, while spending more time with and confiding in peers is a normal part of growing up, significantly avoiding parents, abandoning long-time friendships for a new set of peers or expressing excessive hostility toward family members, may indicate that the teen is experiencing significant stress. While negative behavior is not always linked to excessive stress, negative changes in behavior are almost always a clear indication that something is wrong. Adults will want to pay attention to these behaviors and determine an appropriate response or intervention.
Because children are often not familiar with the word stress and its meaning, they may express feelings of distress through other words such as “worried,” “confused,” “annoyed” and “angry.” Children and teens may also express feelings of stress by saying negative things about themselves, others, or the world around them (e.g. “No one likes me,” “I’m stupid,” “Nothing is fun.”). It is important for parents to listen for these words and statements and try to figure out why your child or teen is saying them and whether they seem to indicate a source or sources of stress.
Parents, children and teens do not need to face overwhelming stress alone. If a parent is concerned that his or her child or teen is experiencing significant symptoms of stress on a regular basis, it can be helpful to seek support from the professional community. Counsellors have special training to help people identify problems and develop effective strategies to resolve overwhelming feelings of stress.