A child‘s life may seem simple – no work, no bills, no responsibility but kids of all ages still get stressed.
When they learn new skills or have fresh experiences they may feel a certain amount of stress, which is normal and is a part of learning, but other aspects of a child’s life can cause anxiety.
Sometimes a child’s anxiety can be debilitating. There are a whole range of anxiety disorders which affect children, like separation anxiety, generalised anxiety and school phobia.
More often than not though it’s the everyday pressures children face which lead to emotional blips in their world which can be spotted and hopefully dealt with.
“Most children and young people have anxiety at some point but if a child gets the right support there’s no need to worry it’ll lead to serious anxiety disorders or a lifetime of mental health issues,” says Nicky Lidbetter, chief executive of Anxiety UK.
Just like with adults, major life changes like bereavement, divorce and moving house can lead to stress, but some children also find it hard to deal with the pressure of tests and exams, friendship issues and having to live up to parental expectations.
Check out these 10 possible signs of childhood stress:
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- Change in behaviour
If you can’t quite put your finger on it, but you know there’s something different about the way your child is acting, it may be a sign of stress.
“It may be a change in behaviour, something out of character that a parent picks up on that lasts too long, say for several weeks,” says Janey Downshire, who co-runs Teenagers Translated and is a specialist in young people’s development.
If your child seems to be worrying about things and showing signs of being anxious about situations more than usual, this may indicate they have something on their mind.
“There is a long list of things that kids worry about which to us as adults may seem trivial. With little ones, don’t dismiss or laugh at their fear, take them seriously, give lots of cuddles and reassurance,” says chartered psychologist Elaine Douglas.
Children often bite their nails and this may be a habit or it could be a sign of worrying. If your child doesn’t usually bite or has chewed them down to the quick, there may be an underlying reason.
- Showing aggression
If your child is being overly aggressive it’s a cause for concern. If they are stressed or worried about something at school they may take it out on their siblings at home.
It could be hormonal changes, for example a surge in testosterone in boys which is making them more physical, but if they are being nasty with it, it may be stress-related.
“When some children have anxiety and they are struggling with their thoughts it can come out as irritability, anger and frustration,” says Nicky
- Being withdrawn
Some children when they feel emotional tension may clam up.
“Children may become excessively withdrawn from family and activities and not forthcoming about what’s on their mind or what they are doing,” says Elaine.
“They might not want to interact, avoid sleepovers or not want to go on school trips,” says Nicky.
If a child is spending more time than usual on social media or online it may be a sign of withdrawal. Keep an eye on their posts in case you can pick up clues as to how they are feeling, for example, negative comments about themselves and their lives.
- Non-verbal clues
Signs of stress may not be glaring. It’s doubtful a child of any age will come up to you and say “Mum, Dad, I’m feeling stressed”. They probably won’t be able to articulate how they are feeling.
“Ninety-three percent of communication is non-verbal so you can pick up on signs of stress in ways other than talking – through voice tone, posture and not making eye contact,” says Janey.
When your 4-year-old wants to use the potty, or your 10-year-old keeps sucking their thumb, it’s an example of regressive behaviour which may be caused by stress.
Common causes could be a life change – a new sibling being born or parents splitting up. Children don’t know how to express their feelings so revert to habits from when they were younger.
“In young children it can be regression to earlier years like talking in a more babyish manner, maybe reverting to bed wetting, more infantile behaviour, more tantrums than normal or being clingy and uncooperative,” says Elaine.
- Aches and pains
Emotional stress may manifest itself in physical ways. If a child or teen is stressed it may make their neck and shoulder muscles tighten.
If they complain about soreness, encourage them to relax, have a bath, let go of the tension if they can.
- Physical symptoms
Children may feel physically sick with worry or get headaches.
“When you are stressed your biochemical balance is disrupted; you have high levels of cortisone and low levels of dopamine so this can affect teenagers in different ways. Some may get headachy others may get tummy pains,” says Janey.
“Young children aren’t making up physical symptoms like tummy aches, feeling sick or a racing heart,” says Nicky. “They may be anxious, and school anxiety itself is particularly prevalent between the ages of 7 and 9.”
When children are run down or under pressure they may be more prone to minor ailments like cold sores and ulcers.
- Sleeping problems
Childhood stress may lead to sleeping problems. It may be an inability to fall asleep as their worries are going round and round inside their heads. It could come out in the form of nightmares and bad dreams.
Sleeping problems may lead to children feeling more anxious or it could be the other way round that anxiety can lead to poor sleeping, which in turn makes anxiety worse.
- Changes in eating
Any changes in eating may be a sign your child is under pressure in some way, either eating more or less than usual.
“Eating patterns may change,” says Nicky. “At one end of the spectrum they maybe can’t face eating anything and then the other end they may be comfort eating which is a faulty self-soothing technique to try to make themselves feel better.
“A lack of appetite or secretive eating or any issues around food may be signs to watch for,” says Elaine.
By Siobhan Harris
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