AND OTHER CLUES YOUR CHILD IS STRESSED OUT
“I don’t want to go to school! I’m sick (fake cough). I just want to stay at home.”
Most mornings, at least one of my kids refuse to get out of bed. And with deep breathes, I aim to get through the morning routine without everything falling apart in and around me. Cooperation is the name of the game when you have 3 small boys (currently 5, 4 and 3) to get ready and out of the house before the peak traffic closes off all exits of your neighbourhood rendering you LATE, yet again. And thatphrase immediately tells me, cooperation is out of the window for today. It’s stressful! It’s stressful for me. It’s stressful for my husband. It’s stressful for my kids. And no one is happy by the time we leave the house. On these mornings, my response can be summed up as – this is life, suck it up, we have a job to do now, let’s get going. And when we finally get in the car, I realise how I gave into my base emotions, let absolute chaos reign and apologise for turning into the mom-monster yet again. (Is it just me?)
But every now and then, I can see that this “I don’t want to go to school” is a bit more serious, and a sign that things are just too much to handle right now. On these days, things run a little differently…
We all have stress – in today’s society, I think this is an understatement. We all have A TRUCK LOAD of stress! But at what point does it become a problem? And how do we know we’ve crossed that line? How do we know if our children have crossed that line, and how do we help them?
What is fear / anxiety / stress?
These three emotions are very closely linked, and can often feel like the same thing.
Fear is a reaction to a present threat, with negative emotions and motivation to escape or avoid danger or threat. (That ice cold, heart thumping feeling when an angry strong individual starts walking straight towards you at a pace.)
Anxiety is a reaction to a future threat, again with negative emotions. The future event can be perceived as something important or difficult. (That uneasy feeling and questioning, ‘will I pass the upcoming exams?’)
Stress is a reaction to a demand that one feels one cannot cope with, or threatens to disrupt one’s life in some way. (That panicky feeling when you have too much to do, in too little time – like loads of homework, along with all the extramural activities. Or getting 3 uncooperative little ones ready before being late.)
All three can be good and necessary for survival and moving forward through difficult circumstances. For example, avoiding confrontations with stronger people, can keep you from physical harm. A little nervousness about an exam or sport event, can encourage you to study or practice harder, and develop your skill. A challenging task can cause you to push yourself to new heights.
The problem is when they become overwhelming and lead to further disruption, or dysfunction (this is where we may to enter into psychological disorders). For example, avoiding all sports or parties or school events because I’m afraid of being attacked. Not being able to concentrate because you believe you will fail the exam no matter how hard you try, till eventually you don’t bother at all. Not being able to sleep because you have too much to do, and your adrenaline is pumping that you can’t shut off at night, and then can’t stay awake in class.
In short, there is definitely a problem when:
- fear remains after threat has disappeared or fear is bigger than the situation warrants
- when worrying about something so much that one can’t even face normal daily tasks
- feeling one cannot cope with daily life and withdrawing from all activity
- becoming physically ill because the body’s defences are depleted from continuous stress.
What are the clues that my child has a problem?
If some stress, fear or anxiety is good, then allowing children to experience it is necessary. We often want to protect our children from what is negative – but a healthy dose is necessary for learning, growth and future success. But, knowing when our children are heading towards something that is harmful, allows us to intervene before it becomes devastating. So how do you know when your child (or yourself) might be headed for the unhealthy version of stress, anxiety or fear? Children express themselves through behavior. If we spend time with our children, and know them well, we will be able to pick up on their behaviours which are out of the ordinary. When children don’t understand what is going on inside of themselves, or they know something is wrong but don’t have the words, they act out. Stress, anxiety and fear may show themselves in the following ways:
- Changes in eating and sleeping habits (too much/too little, nightmares, fears about sleeping, waking odd hours, not falling asleep)
- Physical complaints (stomach aches, headaches, constant illness)
- Change in mood and behavior (demotivated, restless, forgetful, irritable, fighting, bullying, avoiding places/people, clinginess, tantrums, disobedience, oppositional, self-injury, alcohol/drugs)
- Change in school performance (drop in marks, disruptive, impulsive, inattentive, dependent on teacher, incomplete work)
When you notice a significant change in your child, over a period of time, start to ask questions.
What causes of stress/ fear/anxiety?
The causes of stress or fear or anxiety are numerous. In fact, anything can cause a negative emotion. A stressor can happen once, or it can happen over, and over. It can be big and it can be small. Some stressors include:
- Universally threatening events – things generally considered dangerous – crime, bullying, including cyber-, natural disaster, gangsterism, violence in schools
- Major life events – anything that causes disruption – divorce, moving house, changing school, friends leaving, choosing subjects, examinations, parent’s absence, displacement, change of caregivers
- Daily hassles – the small everyday things, that can build up and become taxing – homework, sports, relationships, friendships, traffic, aftercare, change in routine, social media, technology, transport, rushing to get ready
- Demands of life – high expectations to excel, to have certain possessions, popularity, expectations of customs and culture
- Lack of resources – unemployment and poverty, large classes, lack of academic support, lack of parental involvement, personal disconnection due to technology and busyness
What can be done to help a stressed child?
In as much as an event can cause stress, stress is is also caused by the way we think about and interpret events, how we are able to handle our emotions, as well as our temperament and physical response to stress (hormones, brain structure, etc). If we think about children, the younger they are, the more at risk they are – immature brain structure, unable to understand or manage emotions yet, unable to cognitively process events. So as adults, our role is to bring external resources around our children, to reduce the stress they are exposed to, as well as to equip them with coping skills to be able to face stressors and manage them well. Some things we can do as parents, teachers, or whatever role you may have in a child’s life to help include:
- In the moment – stop and breath (this helps the body calm down and process stress physically).
- Talk through daily problems (what they are feeling, why, what can they do, what do they need help with) – find solutions together
- Create time for fun, relaxation and gratitude – this allows the body to produce ‘happy hormones’ and redirect mental focus onto the good.
- Parenting/teaching towards empowering children – develop their strengths and learn how to problem-solve.
- Spend quality time with your child and create a structured and stable environment – children need a safe space, where they know what to expect and need to feel loved and accepted as they are.
- Learn to manage your own stress well, and be an example of how to work through challenges and focus on what is good.
- Make necessary changes – when you come to the place where you or your child are doing what you can to cope, you may need to consider getting away from the stressor.
- When you notice stress/anxiety/fear is becoming overwhelming and interfering with everyday life, ask for help. Speak to someone who can assist you and your child in recongising the causes, understanding the feelings and developing coping skills.
So back to those mornings where not wanting to go to school is a clue that life is just too tough right now… in the midst of the chaos, we stop. We breathe deeper. We risk being late. We ask questions. We hear what the problem is, talk through solutions and end with connection and reassurance. For the most part, we’ve successfully managed to overcome these challenges then and there – other times, we’ve had to make some changes to our lifestyle or have had some tough conversations. Being aware of the clues means we can step in and assist our children before it becomes unmanageable. So be mindful, be present and be aware of what your children are communicating to you. And as you help them navigate the little stressors, you help them develop skills for the long term.