Managing Child Stress

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It's not uncommon for children to feel a bit of stress these days. Apart from their schoolwork, they're usually involved in a range of other activities, from music lessons and Kumon classes to art workshops and football practice. Some kids have such hectic schedules that they can barely pencil in some playtime. Other factors also come into play. If your child is going to a new school, for instance, or having a fight with a friend, he may also get stressed out.

Stress is a state of mental or emotional tension caused by aggravating circumstances. Being in a continued state of stress can bring all sorts of unpleasant things among adults. Oftentimes, it has been pointed out as being the cause of various kinds of ailments. So just imagine what stress could do to a child whose physical, mental, and physiological health are still developing.

Is Your Child Stressed?

There are physical and clinical symptoms of stress which parents should watch out for, says Tippy Sumpaico-Tanchanco, MD, FPPS, FPSDBP, Msc. The clinic director and practicing developmental-behavioral pediatrician of MedMom Child Development Clinic, Dr. Sumpaico-Tanchanco is also an Associate Professor at the Ateneo School of Medicine and Public Health.

These symptoms include increase in heart rate, stomach aches, and headaches.

Dr. Sumpaico-Tanchanco says, "Frequent visits to the school clinic when the child has previously been given a clean bill of health by their pediatrician may herald significant stress. Try to observe if the onset of these symptoms coincide with 'big events' in school like tests or presentations or if they are periodic in nature (i.e. before going out of the car in the morning,etc)."

Children who are too young to verbalize what they're going through will send out other signals. For instance, they may become clingy to their parents or caregivers, cry incessantly, or be very irritable.

"More verbal kids may routinely express their worries and often complain about school or their usual activities. They may also sleep or eat too much or too little. Some may have regressive symptoms like bedwetting after being toilet trained for some time," she says.

Other kids may express feelings of stress by saying negative things about themselves, others, or the world around them. They may say such things as "No one likes me, I have no friends," "I’m awful," or "Everything stinks."

Effects of Chronic Child Stress

Toxic stress can have unpleasant effects on a child. Dr. Sumpaico-Tanchanco says, "Toxic stress happens when a child experiences prolonged, strong, and frequent physical and emotional abuse, chronic neglect, exposure to violence, family economic burden, caregiver abuse, or mental illness. This kind of stress affects the different organ systems of the body of the child. Muscles of children and teens who are perennially stressed may be tense or painful. Stress can make a person breathe harder or faster. Chronic stress can add to the risk of chronic adult diseases such as hypertension, heart attack, stroke, and even diabetes. Children who are exposed to chronic stress may have symptoms of inattention, anxiety, and depression."

Managing Child Stress

There are a number of ways that parents can help their children manage stress. Here are some ideas from Dr. Sumpaico-Tanchanco:

  • Be present. "Make time for your kids each day. It makes them feel relaxed when you spend time with them doing fun-filled activities or even just lounging around together."
  • Establish healthy habits. "Good nutrition, the balance of rest and play can boost coping skills."
  • Talk it out. "For older kids, you can help your child cope with the stress by talking to him about it and discussing what might be causing it as a 'team.' You can decide on a plan together like cutting back on after-school activities, keeping a journal or diary, or doing exercise like walking together."
  • Teach kids relaxation and breathing exercises. "Relaxation techniques may include coaching your child to use calming words such as 'Relax' or 'You’re okay.' Teach them how to breathe deeply and slowly. 'Sniff and blow' might be more appropriate instructions for younger kids.
  • Consult a professional. "Parents can opt to try some of the strategies mentioned above. If there seems to be no improvement after a few weeks, if the child’s symptoms seem to be getting worse or more frequent, and if the symptoms are causing impairments such as decrease in grades and loss of friendships, then it might be a good idea to seek professional help from your psychologists or doctors."

Dr. Tippy Sumpaico-Tanchanco is the clinic director and practicing developmental-behavioral pediatrician at MedMom Child Development Clinic. She is certified in using the Griffith’s Mental Development Scale and the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule. She was recently certified as a Basic DIRFloortime practitioner after completing her training with the Interdisciplinary Council on Development and Learning.