TORONTO — With the school year well underway, those first-day jitters most children experience are now a thing of the past. But for some kids, meeting the intellectual demands and navigating social relationships at school can trigger ongoing stress and anxiety.
And parents need to be on the lookout for signs that their child is having difficulties coping, experts say.
“It’s important to recognize the times when children are experiencing more severe or chronic stress that is beyond their ability to manage,” says Dr. Robin Alter, a Toronto-area child psychologist.
Alter says both children and adults need some stress because that’s what makes life interesting and helps us mature psychologically.
Dr. Michael Ungar, a professor of social work at Dalhousie University in Halifax, agrees that children shouldn’t be bubble-wrapped to prevent them from possibly unpleasant or trying experiences, because they need to learn that stress is a normal part of life.
“We have to always push our children into what’s called ‘the zone of proximal development’ or that next place where they will have a little bit of manageable amounts of challenge so that they grow,” says Ungar, author of Too Safe for Their Own Good and We Generation: Raising Socially Responsible Kids.
But when the teeter-totter of life gets out of balance — with too may stressors piled on one side and too few coping skills on the other — that’s when emotional distress can build and get out of control.
Indications that a child is suffering too much stress include irritability, sleeping problems and nightmares, complaints of repeated headaches or stomach aches, appearing withdrawn and reverting to outgrown behaviours like bedwetting or thumb-sucking.
“The signs of stress are things like meltdowns,” says Alter. “Every kid has meltdowns, but if they’re having them frequently, like on a daily basis or even several times a day,” parents need to pay attention, she says.
“That’s a clear signal that ‘The world is asking me to do too many things’ or ‘I need to do too many things’ or ‘Things are too hard for me’ or ‘I just can’t.”’
The reasons for a child becoming overwhelmed by stress or anxiety can be numerous — from not fitting in with their peer group or being targeted by a bully to disliking their teacher or finding their school work too demanding.
“I think the expectations on kids is much higher than it was previously, which increases stress,” says Alter, noting that family problems such as parents separating can also create emotional overload in a child.
“Any stresses that are going on in the family are going to impact on the children.”
Experts say that children need to be taught that stress can be managed.
That’s the key message of Kids Have Stress Too! — a program developed by the Psychology Foundation of Canada that gives parents and caregivers the tools to help children prevent and deal with stress.
Spending quiet time with a child cuddling, reading or doing arts and crafts can be a means of exploring a child’s feelings and of easing their anxiety, the program suggests.
Engaging in simple relaxation exercises, such as deep breathing and stretching, helps children gain a sense of control, teaches them that they can make themselves feel better and encourages a can-do attitude.
But what if a child’s reaction to stress becomes severe and chronic — and nothing seems to help them cope or to ease their anxiety?
Ungar says parents have to look at intensity and duration: “So how long has this persisted? How severe are the symptoms?”
“If you have a child throwing up violently every morning for a month,” it’s time to seek professional counselling, he advises.
A child who repeatedly refuses to go to school is also a red flag that their stress is getting way out of hand, adds Alter.