We often refer to our children endearingly as “tiny humans,” which they most certainly are, but they are by no means tiny adults for quite some time. Children’s emotional development grows in stages just as their physical development does. There are so many complex things happening with children and adolescents as they grow up. We can observe them from the outside and see how their growth is progressing, but it is much more difficult to observe what may be happening on the inside with their emotional development, specifically in how they experience and manage stress.
Young children may feel a level of anxiety over being left at school or daycare without a parent or favorite toy. They may have difficulty expressing or understanding strong feelings when playing with other children – such as anger, jealousy, or sadness. A change in family dynamics can be stressful for children – including the birth of a sibling, or the loss of a loved one. Mealtimes can also be stressful for some children, if their expectation for what they want to eat is not presented, or being asked to try something new. And certainly young children experience a level of stress if they make a mistake or get in trouble for making poor choices with their behavior.
The physical symptoms of stress in young children may include crying, throwing a temper tantrum, biting, hitting or yelling, while some may choose to withdraw and wish to be alone, or complain of a headache or stomachache. When our children are exhibiting what we consider to be “bad behavior,” they may simply be trying to come to terms with what they are feeling, and are having a very difficult time working through their emotions. As parents, we need to help them through these stressful experiences by labeling their feelings, and helping them talk about what is upsetting to them. Working out a solution for how to recognize similar feelings in the future and what to do about them is helping them learn how to manage their stress in a healthful way.
Establishing healthy foundations for helping children manage their feelings and behaviors when they are young certainly lends itself to helping them cope with stress as they become adolescents as well. Older children can still experience feelings they do not recognize or are uncomfortable with, and their uncertainty may be masked by a change in their behavior. And for many young people, these feelings can be overwhelming.
Stress among adolescents can come from a variety of sources, including striving to do well in school, making and sustaining friendships, managing perceived expectations from parents, teachers, or coaches, balancing schoolwork and a job with their social lives, and making decisions about their future.
Adults can sometimes be unaware when their children or teens are experiencing stressful feelings. It is helpful to be familiar with emotional or behavioral cues that your child could be exhibiting. Here are some tips from the American Psychological Association on ways to recognize possible signs of stress among children:
Most importantly, understand that you and your children do not need to navigate the stress that comes with growing up alone. Your child’s Pediatrician can help by offering assessments, guidance, just listening, or suggesting resources to help families and children develop effective strategies to manage stress.
It is important to recognize that stress, if left untreated, may lead to unhealthy behavior, or promote negative health outcomes later on in life. We can work together to help your child put their best foot forward and help them live balanced and well.
For more information about recognizing stress in children, visit our online Health Library.
The pediatricians at Fort HealthCare Internal Medicine & Pediatrics specialize in providing care for children and adolescents from birth to adulthood. Scheduling an annual Well Child exam is the best way to help keep your child’s health on the right track. Learn more at FortHealthCare.com/Pediatrics.