Stress may seem like an adult concern, a result of work, finances or other obligations. But studies show it’s a concern for children, too.
Local parents and child care experts are focusing their attention on childhood stress and coming up with solutions to the problem.
“I have found that even elementary-aged kids are very intuitive and pick up on the stressors affecting their parents,” said Brandon Brock, counselor at Tadmore Elementary School in Hall County. “Parents stressing over finances, fighting with each other, family drama and so on carry over to the children.”
Not all childhood stress is due to problems at home.
“Anything that creates change can be stressful for children,” said Carol Smith, licensed clinical social worker with Psychiatric and Psychological Associates. “A lot of times it’s social issues, like peer relationships. School can be a stressor, death of a parent, divorce, illness.”
Smith, who has worked more than 20 years with children, said she sees childhood stress as a growing problem. All ages can be affected by stress, she said, including newborn babies.
“What typically happens with newborn babies is the sensory overload,” she said. “They sense more than they can understand, and that can create stress.”
`“School can certainly be stressful as well,” Brock said. “When a big test like the Georgia Milestones comes around, students get stressed because so much emphasis is put on their performance.”
Green said she sees “a definite increase” in stress and anxiety due to a number of causes.
“One of the things we see that can be particularly stressful for kids is divorce, alternating one week at each parent’s home,” she said. “There’s a lot of back and forth, and the parents usually really like the schedule, but it’s pretty stressful on the kids.”
Sometimes, Green said, children are just juggling too many things.
“In general, the crazy schedules these kids keep, between extracurricular activities, academics and such,” she said. “That seems to add stress to their lives.”
Kimberly Pils, mother of two, said she’s discussed concerns about childhood stress with other mothers.
“We all just talked about it,” Pils said. “I think one of the biggest issues is our kids are doing so many extracurriculars at younger and younger ages. They are just constantly going.”
Smith and Green said expectations can cause stress, sometimes created by teachers, parents or even the child.
A study out of the Children’s Hospital of Michigan found distress in children is associated with decreases in IQ and reading achievement.
That being said, Green said she sees an increased stress level for children involved in gifted or talented academic programs.
“There’s that external pressure as well as self-imposed pressure,” she said.
Smith said it’s important for parents to recognize the signs of stress in their child, because often the child won’t know how to describe what they are feeling.
“Signs are change of behavior, decrease or increase in appetite, or fear of familiar places,” she said. “Sometimes children will be fearful about going to school when they haven’t been in the past, or fear of being around people they’ve often been around.”
Pils said she looks for changes in her daughters’ behavior, and she asks them to talk about it.
“My husband and I both, we always tell them if something is really bothering them, to talk about it and open up about it,” she said. “Whether it’s friend issues, school issues, classes or extracurriculars, we want them to realize if they don’t talk about it, it will continue to stress them out.”
There are ways to alleviate the stress a child feels, however, and Brock said that often starts at home.
“You can help these kids by ... being more intentional about not showing the effects of your stress in front of the children,” Brock said. “Don’t complain about money struggles or about your partner in front of your children. They often feel like they want to help but can’t and that makes them feel powerless.”
Carie Corry, certified health and wellness coach and Hall County parent, agreed.
“We have more stress in our lives, and we pass that on to our children,” she said. “We put them in stressful situations, we overschedule. We just have busy lifestyles and our children are not really prepared for that.”
Corry said one of the best things to keep a child from feeling stressed is ensuring the child gets enough sleep and is eating a balanced, natural diet.
If a child suffers from school or academic-related stress, one quick solution is a relaxed, healthy breakfast each morning to start the child’s day right, Brock said.
Smith said to keep children informed of coming changes, so they can prepare for it.
“One of the things parents can do is create structure and stability for them, by having routines,” Smith said. “Having certain times of doing things consistently is helpful, even things like picking them up from school consistently on time.”
Corry, mother of a North Hall Middle School student, said she helps her daughter and her daughter’s classmates ease stress by offering a yoga class at the school some mornings. She also does training for the entire family.
“I’ve coached parents, children and teens to take an overall look at their lifestyle and places where we can reduce stress and just bring more health, vitality and peace, really, into their lives.”
Green said if a child’s reaction to a stressful situation is concerning or disproportional, parents can consider counseling to help the child’s coping skills. She and Brock agreed one of the best ways to relieve stress is, simply, to make sure the child is having fun.
“Having fun is one of the best ways to deal with stress for kids and adults alike,” Brock said. “We all need a way to let loose now and again to release our stress and frustrations.”