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stress and children

Stress is the "wear and tear" our bodies go through as we adjust to our constantly changing environment. Anything that causes change in our lives causes stress. Stress can be short-term (acute) or long-term (chronic). Acute stress is the reaction to an immediate threat. This is commonly known as the fight-or-flight response. The threat can be any situation that is perceived, even subconsciously, as a danger.

Under stress, the heart rate and breathing increase. The muscles become tense. Multiple sources of stress worsen the stress level. Children's bodies need relief from stress to regain balance.

What is the information for this topic? 
A certain amount of stress is normal and not always bad. Unfortunately, children are becoming stressed at younger ages today. There are a number of reasons that a child might feel stress. These include:
  • death of a loved one
  • parents' divorce, separation, or marital conflict
  • remarriage of a parent
  • move to a new home
  • starting preschool, or day care
  • inadequate physical resources like food, clothing, or shelter
  • constant fatigue due to lack of sleep
  • injuries or severe illness
  • child abuse
  • family or community violence
  • natural disaster
  • fear of failure
Reactions to stress vary with the child's stage of development, ability to cope, how long the stress continues, and the intensity of the stress. The two most common indicators that a child is stressed are changes in behaviour and regression in behaviour. Children under stress may react by doing things they don't normally do. Behaviours seen earlier in their development may reappear, such as thumb sucking and bed wetting. A child may withdraw from activities he or she used to enjoy. There may be more complaints of headaches or stomach pain. A child who has too much stress may have sleep disorders, including sleepwalking. The child may become fearful, clingy, and anxious about being separated from a parent. Some children become more aggressive.

The best stress reducer for children is good parenting. Some ways parents can help a child deal with stress are:
  • be sensitive to the child's feelings
  • try to protect the child from causes of stress
  • show signs of affection like hugging the child
  • spend daily quiet time alone with the child
  • teach the child anger management and conflict resolution skills
  • include laughter, fun, and exercise in the child's daily life
  • have realistic expectations for the child
  • let the child express his or her feelings openly
  • encourage healthy patterns of eating and sleeping
  • encourage drawing, artwork, and physical activity
  • monitor and restrict television, movies, and computer use
  • provide consistency and structure to the child's life
  • teach relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing or exercise
Signs of stress in children should be taken seriously. Stress can lead to problems in school, and affect a child's social and cognitive development. A parent should seek professional help for their child if stress is preventing the child from getting on with normal, everyday life.

Author: Gail Hendrickson, RN, BS
Reviewer: eknowhow Medical Review Panel
Editor: Dr John Hearne
Last Updated: 17/02/2005
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request

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