Young boy hugging his mother

How to recognise the signs of stress in your child

We’re living with stress in epidemic proportions, and children are affected too – but they show it in very different ways to us adults

What's the story?

While most of us can (just about) cast our minds back to the highs and lows of our school days, the pressures and anxieties facing pupils today mark an all-time high. Recent stats from the NSPCC suggest anxiety-driven demand for counselling sessions is spiking, having risen by a massive 59 per cent over the last two years. The charity has seen a rise in sessions specifically related to exam stress as well, with 12-15 year olds most likely to seek help.

Last summer more than 80 per cent of primary school leaders reported increased mental health problems in pupils during exams, with cases of stress, anxiety and panic attacks rising in more than three-quarters of schools. Tag on worries created by the use of social media, with children as young as eight struggling with ‘sharenting’ (parents sharing embarrassing photos, errr) and cyber bullying, and you have a toxic cocktail of stress.

Is YOUR child showing signs of stress?

Anxieties can manifest very differently in teens and kids, and children often find it tough to recognise and communicate when they’re stressed. You can usually spot it through changes in behaviour, such as: acting irritable or moody, giving up activities that they used to love, whinging about school more often, crying, nightmares, being easily startled, being clingy, sleeping more than usual or not sleeping at all, binge-eating or losing appetite and relying on habits such as hair chewing or thumb-sucking.

With teens, they may avoid you excessively, ditch long-time friendships for new friends or become hostile to family members. Yes, we KNOW that could easily be normal teen ‘eye-rolling behaviours’ – it’s when it’s extreme that there’s cause for concern.

Some young children might describe physical stress symptoms like a feeling in their belly, and older children might act out or want to spend more time on their own.

Young people are adapting to lots of changes as they grow up, so it’s normal for them to express raw emotions and change moods quickly. But if your child is consistently struggling, or if they seem to be upset over a long period of time, it’s important to take it seriously. Parents often instinctively know when their child is going through something – so trust your instinct.

What can you do?

Helping your child through a stressful stint could involve passing on a few of your own stress-management tips; whether your strategies include mindfulness and holistic therapies or invigorating exercise in a green spaces, your whole family can reap the rewards. First, though, comes communication.

Dealing with stress means talking about it and acknowledging it. Saying “Yes, this is a really stressful time. Dad’s lost his job and we have a bit less money but we have a plan” or “OK, you may have to retake that exam. Let’s look at your options”. Don’t burden them with unnecessary information or worries, but try to listen without bringing your own anxieties into the conversation and let them know their problems are containable.

And don’t stop working on your own peace of mind. It’s extremely hard for parents to see their children go through difficult times, and it can have a huge impact on the whole family. So remember to look after yourself, too.

 

Sources

www.nspcc.org.uk/what-we-do/news-opinion/exam-stress-overwhelming-for-thousands-of-children/
www.thekeysupport.com/press/spike-child-mental-health-issues-exams-may-2017/
www.childrenscommissioner.gov.uk/publication/life-in-likes/
www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(16)31714-7/fulltext

Children's Health