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Stress in Children: What It Is, How Parents Can Help

by Sabine Hack, M.D.

When and why do children feel stress?

Children feel stress long before they grow up. Many children have to cope with family conflict, divorce, constant changes in schools, neighborhoods and child care arrangements, peer pressure, and sometimes, even violence in their homes or communities.

The impact of a stressor depends on a child's personality, maturity, and style of coping. It is not always obvious, however, when children are feeling overtaxed. Children often have difficulty describing exactly how they feel. Instead of saying "I feel overwhelmed" they might say "my stomach hurts." When some children are stressed they cry, become aggressive, talk back or become irritable. Others may behave well but become nervous, fearful, or panicky.

Stress can affect children's physical health as well. Asthma, hay fever, migraine headache and gastrointestinal illnesses like colitis, irritable bowel syndrome and peptic ulcer can be exacerbated by stressful situations.

What can parents do?

Parents can help their children learn to keep the harmful effects of stress at a minimum.

  1. Parents should monitor their own stress levels. In studies on families who have experienced traumatic circumstances such as earthquakes or war, the best predictor of children's coping is how well their parents cope. Parents need to be particularly aware of when their own stress levels contribute to marital conflict. Frequent fighting between parents is unsettling for children.
  2. Keep communication lines open. Kids feel better about themselves when they have a good relationship with their parents.
  3. Children who do not have close friendships are at risk for developing stress- related difficulties, parents should encourage friendships by scheduling play dates, sleepovers, and other fun activities.
  4. Parents need to shape daily schedules with their child's temperament in mind. Although children thrive in familiar, predictable environments with established routines and clear safe boundaries, their tolerance for stimulation varies.
  5. No matter how busy their schedule, children of all ages need time to play and relax. Children use play to learn about their world, explore ideas and soothe themselves.

About the Author

Sabine Hack, M.D. is a former Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine.

Date Published: May 15, 2001