how to diagnose and deal with stress in children

"there are things we can do to help with a child's stress,
and it starts by identifying it"

man and child

Just like adults, children experience stress at various stages of development. It could happen when they are transitioning to a new school, their parents are going through divorce or they experience the death of a close family member.  The good news is there are things we can do to help as their parents.  You may not be able to eliminate the stressful factor, but we can certainly do more than assume that it will go away on its own.

Identify stress in kids

To start, look for telltale signs of stress in your child. There is no way you will realize a change in your child’s behaviour if you do not spend time with them.

If your child has been outgoing then suddenly gets withdrawn, that is a sign of concern. In addition, if their sleeping or eating patterns have changed, it is time for you to act. Do they spend time alone in their bedroom while the rest of the family is having supper in the dining room? Do they dread waking up and dress sluggishly for school?

I have heard children say that they just hate school.  Some have trouble waking up during school days but wake up incredibly early during weekends and holidays. While this is largely normal, talk to your child's teachers to identify any changes that may have occurred at school. Never rule out the possibility of bullying by other students.

Address the issue

Children need someone to look up to when things are not right. If I spend the whole day away from home only to return late at night, I am not helping the situation. While a teacher or day care staff cares for them, they may not be comfortable opening up to him or her. Try dedicating time for a family gathering, preferably meal time or every night before the children go to sleep.  Can you work in chat time to discuss ‘how was your day’? Connecting and that unconditional interest in our children is essential.  

During supper, try structuring part of the conversation around challenges and another part for expectations.  When you ask what is wrong with your child, don't settle for answers like, “It’s nothing, and I’ll be alright.” Dig deeper for the real answer, but be careful to not sound harsh, judgmental, or intimidating, lest the child will drift further away.  Mirror back what they say “I hear you feel frustrated when…..” Being empathetic is more involving and compassionate than being sympathetic. Listen keenly and go through the experience with the child from their point of view.  

A few things to help with common stress points

How often does your child see the doctor? Have they had a medical checkup by your family physician?  How is their eating, sleep and their physical activity levels, do they have the right ‘fuel’ for their bodies? One of the greatest causes of stress in children is simple lack of sleep. A child should be getting anywhere from 11 to 10 hours a night (age 5 11 hours, age 6 10 ¾, age 7 10.5 etc).  What can we do to improve?  Create or stick to a bedtime routine, what ever fits snack, pj’s, reading, music and relaxing in bed.

Has your child seen the optometrist?  Studies reveal that one in every six children has a sight disorder. As learning is largely visual, your child’s interest in school and grades will decline if he cannot see what is going on.  Let a qualified optometrist intervene.

What is your daily routine like?  Are their clear expectations of what a smooth day would look like?  Pictorial schedules such as magnetic schedules or a clip art schedule for children between age three and twelve can be helpful.  Morning routine that outlines ‘get dressed’, ‘brush teeth’, ‘comb hair’, ‘eat breakfast’ to help remind what they need to do and in what sequence.  The schedule prompts them, gives the opportunity for independence and the opportunity for praise vs a nagging parent to make it through the day. For teenagers offer guided choices, would you like to take the garbage out or clean out the dishwasher by 7 pm as per the schedule today? 

Keep children busy with something that they actually love such as drawing, music or sports.  Ask them if they want to play soccer or play a game together, vs an open ended question like “what do you want to do?”   Social interactions like going to church, visiting friends or going for shopping are helpful for some.  Others need individual rejuvenation time like watching TV as a stress reliever, however, set reasonable limits on screen time and suggest how about reading a book, drawing or listening to music.  I mean, let them be distracted from stress, but not overworked or over scheduled.  If as parents we are frazzled with our schedule, then so are our children – find your personal and family balance.

These approaches should go a long way in the child’s general well-being.