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How to Recognize Stress in Children

April 28, 2020

Hello friends- How are you? If you’re like me, you’re great one moment and then in tears the next, only to be followed by confusion and utter boredom. No? Just me?
I hope you had a chance to read last week’s blog about managing worry. If you haven’t, you can check it out here. If you’re a teacher and you’re feeling overwhelmed, be sure to check out this free resource.

We must, as adults in children’s lives, manage our own stress and worry first – dysregulated adults cannot help children regulate their own feelings – and they need us right now. It’s OK to not be OK right now; but if you’re an adult who’s suffering, please reach out for help – from me or another trusted provider. I want all of us, as adults, putting on our oxygen masks first.
Now, on to the children. What does stress look like in children? How does it present itself? What should we look for? And when we see it, what do we do? I’ve got you covered. Here are 5 ways stress presents in children and how to help kids manage worry.

  1. Sometimes stress comes out as anger. Anger can look like mean words, eye rolling, loud voices, isolation, slamming doors, complete withdrawal and stonewalling, or refusal to engage – and all of that was just my 13-year-old this morning! But seriously, when kids don’t have a way or the experience to express more complex feelings, often anger is the go-to defense mechanism. Anger presents itself as a mask to more complicated, vulnerable feelings that usually can be identified as: SAD, WORRIED, OR CONFUSED.

  2. Helplessness is another way that stress presents in children. Feeling out of control, in despair and overwhelmed are typical ways that children experience worry and stress. There is so much that they cannot control right now, which leads to a feeling of helplessness. They’ve been removed from their normal routines, their friends and many people around them are stressed too. Enter overwhelm.

  3. Perhaps your kids seem completely exhausted right now… fatigue is another way that stress presents in children. My 15-year old said it best the other day. “I’m underwhelmed and overwhelmed all at the same time.” Guess what that does to your energy levels? It zaps them! Monotony, overwhelm and disconnect all lead to feelings of tiredness and fatigue.

  4. Numbing out or dissociating is another way that children experience stress. This might look like playing video games non-stop, zoning out on screens, disappearing into their bedrooms, looking bleary-eyed and disconnected, seeming “meh” or disengagement with regular activities. It’s kind of like their brains have decided to go on strike because all of this is simply too much to handle. Anyone else feel this way?

  5. I’m so bored!! How many of you have heard that? Boredom presents itself in whininess, clinging to us, and complaining from children. Some kids over eat, check out, wander or will complain of other feelings like lonely, tired and isolated. They really have not had a lot of chances prior to this pandemic to be THIS BORED… me neither! We typically have children so overscheduled and overstimulated that boredom rarely enters into their vernacular. Whew!

Now, what’s a parent to do? How do we address stress in these young people we love? Here are a few practical ways to intervene to address stress.
Anger – First, help your child regulate. Regulation before redirection or consequences for angry outbursts will lead you to more connection with your child. Help your child do some belly breathing or get to a calm space. Acknowledge the anger and then give him/her some other feeing words that will more readily address the more complex feelings.
“You seem sad right now and it’s coming out as withdrawing from your family. Do you want to talk about it?” Or, “I bet you’re confused about why all of this is going on right now. I can help you talk through some of it if you’d like.” Or,
“Sometimes anger and worry come together – I know there’s a lot on your mind right now. Can we make a list of your top 3 worries?”
Helplessness – Because there are so many things that feel out of control to your child, lend them some opportunities for control. Can your child choose their bed time or when they’re working on school work? Can he/she decide what’s for dinner and help you? Can your child have some control of their space – maybe some privacy or fun redecorating a space to feel cozy? Or, can you simply provide more choices throughout the day – choices that might not matter to you, but lend your child a sense of control.
Fatigue – Structure, predictability, and consistency – repeat. Structure, predictability, consistency – repeat. Remember, that your daily schedule, pre-pandemic, had a lot of structure to it. Try to replicate structure and predictability where you can. I’m encouraging my kids to go to bed and wake up at the same time, exercise regularly, and get dressed every day. While it might seem fun at first to take a “summer camp approach” or “vacation-mind” to this time, our kids actually thrive on consistency. As well, encouraging lots of mental breaks balanced with physical activities and embodied time – both will combat fatigue.
Numbing out – While some amount of this is normal, a lot is not healthy. Try to help your children recognize the difference between passive and active coping tools. Passive coping will lead us to numbing – video games/screens, sleeping, and mindlessly eating are all passive coping tools. Active coping tools such as journaling, exercising, engaging with friends, listening to music and reading will bring us back into the present and away from numbing.
Boredom – First, validate what’s happening. Acknowledge that our kids haven’t had this opportunity and that boredom can actually provide a lot of time for creativity and pondering. Second, help your child find purpose. Encourage him/her to sit in the feeling of “being bored” and ask questions about what he/she would like to do – hobbies, interests, cooking, etc. can all decrease boredom. You might also ask about loneliness, which is often mistaken for boredom.
That’s all my friends. I hope this helps you and your children address some of the overwhelm you’re facing right now.
Speaking of overwhelm, if you’re a teacher or love a teacher, grab this free resource on how to create mindset shifts and manage feelings of overwhelm.
Let’s keep learning together – I’m here for you.
Dr. Amy
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