There’s a misconception that stress affects only adults or children in their late teens. Even young children are prone to stress and they react to it in various ways. While stress in small doses isn’t bad, high levels of stress in children is a cause for concern. For, prolonged exposure to stress has an unfavourable impact on a child’s physical, mental and emotional development.
But what causes children to experience stress?
From a very young age, human beings begin to experiences stress. The factors that cause stress varies from individual to individual. Here are some common factors that can give rise to stress in children:
- While most children are well cared for by their parents and caregivers, some suffer neglect and abuse at their hands. A child whose needs of food, hygiene and basic comforts are routinely unmet is likely to experience stress. Also, abuse of any kind makes a child feel anxious and worried. In his study titled ‘Effects of Stress on the Developing Brain’, published in the journal Cerebrum (2011), Bruce S McEwen says: "Abuse and neglect also lead to poor health, including increased obesity, cardiovascular reactivity, and increased inflammation, which can have lifelong consequences."
- Disharmony between parents or between family members, has a profoundly negative effect on children. Even very young children can pick up negative vibes, whether directed at them or between trusted adults. Bruce S McEwen further says in his article: "Chaos in the home and inconsistent parenting impair development of self-regulatory behaviors and can lead to substance abuse, earlier onset of sexual activity, bad decision-making, poor mood control, and poor performance in school."
- Watching adults in the family deal with issues such as severe financial difficulties, or prolonged or terminal illness, including mental ailments, can affect children of all ages.
- Perceived favouritism towards another child, discrimination and unreasonable parental expectations can make a child feel stressed.
- The school environment also plays a big role in a child’s life. Changes in friend circles and unsupportive teachers can make children feel anxious and worried.
- Peer pressure can be a stress factor in children as young as six years old. Among older children, social media can become a significant stressor. Also, children who are subject to unrealistic and unmet expectations from parents, experience an immense amount of stress.
- Events like the birth of a new sibling, death of a parent or family member, and changes in family dynamics like divorce, can impact children across age groups.
Every child responds to stressors and stress in his own unique way. However, children are not equipped to deal with stress and its detrimental effects. Worse, they don’t even know that they are suffering from stress. Owing to this, most children continue to struggle with stress and its adverse effects.
Here are 8 ways stress can affect a child:
- Continuous exposure to stress harms the mental, physical and emotional development of a child. Children who experience stress in early childhood find it difficult to keep up with their peers in studies. Those who experience stress as a pre-teen or teen, may exhibit a marked drop in academic performance as compared with the potential they displayed earlier.
- Exposure to stress also induces changes in personality. A child who is constantly under stress may change from an outgoing, happy individual to a timid, fearful, withdrawn or aggressive one. Such changes in your child’s temperament should set alarm bells ringing. Shields et al published a study titled: ‘Stress-related changes in personality: A longitudinal study of perceived stress and trait pessimism’, in the Journal of Research in Personality (2016). According to them: “...stress has been implicated in the development of several highly recurrent and chronic forms of psychopathology, including anxiety disorders and depression, which can promote persistent changes in affective aspects of personality.”
- Stress affects a child mentally and physically. A child coping with undue strain may display physical symptoms. She may lag behind other children in achieving age-appropriate growth and developmental milestones. Her immunity may also be compromised, resulting in frequent illnesses.
- Stress sometimes manifests as vague, clinically inexplicable complaints from children. Some children repeatedly complain of headaches, stomach pains or bodyaches that appear to have no visible physical causes.
- Changes in eating and sleeping patterns may also be indicators of stress in children of every age. Be alert if your child seems to have suddenly lost her appetite or is binge eating, has difficulty sleeping, is constantly tired and listless, or has lost interest in hobbies and pastimes.
- Children in the 6–10 age-group who are stressed may exhibit regressive behaviour. They may revert to habits like sucking their thumb or bedwetting. They may also display behaviours such as frequent crying spells or temper tantrums.
- Though a certain amount of defiance and uncooperative behaviour is expected from pre-teens, if your child seems excessively confrontational or unwilling to adjust, you need to find out whether she’s under undue stress. You can either try to get her to open up to you or, ask an adult she trusts to find out what’s going on.
- Aggressive and violent behaviour is often a sign of stress in teenagers. Some teens may also feel depressed and voice suicidal ideations.
Stress is something that can’t be eliminated from our lives. And, a little stress is not a bad thing at all, as it can challenge a child to test his capabilities and discover his hidden strengths. Help your child cope positively with such stressors by teaching him how to turn the situation into a learning experience. This will hold him in good stead in later years.
But, remember every child is different. Therefore, you should have a good idea of your child’s threshold for stress. If your child is unable to cope with stress, it is your responsibility to provide her all the backing she needs to overcome the stressors. Also, don’t hesitate to seek professional help if you feel that immediate support groups are not helping your child cope with stress in a positive manner.
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