Children and youth can struggle when they are given too much responsibility too early. This author discusses how concerned adults can recognize stress in children, help children cope, and change their own behaviors as caretakers to help stressed-out children.
Jason, a precociously self-reliant third-grader, was always proudly described by his parents as being like “a miniature adult.” Lately, however, he has complained of stomach pains and headaches, and has been reluctant to participate in activities, such as soccer and t-ball, that he had previously enjoyed. Jason is a typical child who appears to be successful and happy, but may be exhibiting signs of stress. Adults need to be alert to the possibility that a child can be given too much responsibility and can be pushed too hard, too early.
Pressures on Children
During the middle childhood years, children feel pressures from a number of sources. This is true of all children-from those who feel the typical pressures of childhood to those who face more difficult challenges. They may feel pressure from within themselves, from parents, from teachers and peers, and from society. Children must respond and adapt to these pressures (Schor, 1995). A child's commitment and stress levels are often controlled by a parent or other influential adult.
Children typically welcome such events as birthday parties, field trips, and organized activities, and may not recognize overload. Often a parent has a strong desire that a child participate in sports, or study dance, or take music lessons. The child's level of enthusiasm may not match the adult's, and the result, for the child, can be stress. Children also feel pressure from unwelcome events such as divorce, abuse, and peer pressure. These, too, promote stress in a child's life.
Recognizing Stress in Children
No two children are alike in how they show their stress. Symptoms of stress and overload vary according to the child's age as well as his or her social, emotional, and biological development.
Stressed preschool-age children frequently regress to toddler behaviors – they cry often, have eating or sleeping problems, become aggressive or withdrawn, and/or lose bladder control.
Elementary-age children demonstrate their stress through sadness, depression, withdrawing from activities, whining, stomachaches, and loss of appetite.
Pre-teens and adolescents who are stressed and overloaded show a general distrust, anger, and low self-esteem. They also are prone to breaking rules and participating in high-risk behavior.
Some children will express their feelings directly. Others, however, may internalize stress and show it through sadness, depression, or withdrawal. Still others exhibit feelings of stress outwardly and begin to misbehave (Ellcind,1988; Schor,1995).
Signs of Overcommitment
Stress is a part of growing up, but adults need to keep a watchful eye on children and intervene when they sense something is undermining a child's physical or psychological well-being. Here are some signs (Schor, 1995) that stress may be having a negative impact on a child:
The child develops physical symptoms, such as headaches and stomach pains.
The child seems restless, tired, and agitated.
The child appears depressed and will not communicate how he or she feels.
The child seems less interested in an activity that was once very important to him or her, such as baseball or dance class.
The child's grades begin to fall, and he or she has less interest than usual in attending classes and doing homework.
The child exhibits antisocial behavior, such as lying and stealing, forgets or refuses to do chores, and seems more dependent on the parent than in the past.
Helping the Child Cope
Once a child becomes involved in an activity, it is important that the adult be supportive but not pushy. An adult can offer praise and show interest by attending the activity, but can still give a child room to change interests according to his or her own desires.
When children are younger, they commonly need help balancing their activities. Adults should look for signs of stress in children. You can help these children by offering suggestions as needed and by guarding against becoming so committed to the activities that you fail to notice critical changes in a child's behavior.
Here are several coping strategies (Elkind, 1988; Schor, 1995):
Help the child evaluate activities that are producing a problem. For example: Is it a problem with the action itself or with something associated with the action, such as a friend who is there?
Examine the child's schedule. If the child has too little free time, help adjust the schedule to make time for relaxation and play.
Examine your own schedule. Often an adult’s hectic schedule will cause a child to be stressed or nervous about the things he or she is doing.
Spend time together every day, even if it is only 10 or 15 minutes. This shared time will help adults better understand the child's needs and can give a child the confidence needed to admit he or she wants to quit an activity.
Consult a pediatrician. Occasionally, when a more serious problem is present, the pediatrician may recommend additional outside help.
Encourage the child to develop a skill or hobby, something that will help the child to relax.
Help the child develop positive friendships.
Provide opportunities for activities – therapy, counseling, support groups – that will help your child cope with or eliminate stress.
Allow the child to act his or her chronological age. Too often adults demand that children act much older than they are.
Be Part of the Solution, Not the Problem
Well-meaning parents and adults can sometimes be the cause of children's being overcommitted at too early an age. If you suspect a child is suffering from stress, evaluate the child's situation or activities, and work with the child to identify solutions. Children are not developmentally able to handle adult-level stress. Because they cannot think or feel the same ways adults do, it is the adult’s responsibility to help keep children from becoming stressed and overloaded.
Elkind, D. (1988). The hurried child: Growing up too fast too soon. New York: Addison-Wesley.
Schor, E. L. (Ed.). (1995). Caring for your school-age child: Ages 5 to 12. New York: Bantam.
This feature: Longo. M.F. (2000) Diagnosing stress: identifying and aiding the pressured child. Reaching Today’s Youth. Vol. 4(3), pp. 17-18