In honor of stress awareness day, it is important to be aware of how and why stress manifests in children. Youth today seem to be under more stress than usual. It is my belief that this is due to the lack of awareness on how stress manifests in youth that may differ from adults. Stress can lead to severe challenges in youth. 3 percent of youth suffer from anxiety and 2.1 percent of youth suffer from depression. Anxiety and depression have been associated with self-harming and suicide is the second leading cause of death among youth ages 12-17. It is very likely that stress is at the root of these severe challenges among youth and addressing signs of stress early may prevent these outcomes.

Youth stress manifests in many ways but some of the most common signs are associated with changes in behavior. These changes may appear all of a sudden or result in youth attempting to hide the issue. Often times youth are experiencing multiple signs of stress and it is important for parents, guardians and other adults with direct oversight of youth to recognize the signs listed and take action.

  • Changes in behavior
  • Decreased appetite
  • Headaches
  • New bed wetting incidents
  • Nightmare
  • Upset stomach or pain in stomach
  • Mood changes
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Change in grades
  • Withdrawn at home, at school, from friends and activities

Relationship is the most important ideology in the life of a child. They are learning how to develop relationships, ultimately putting relationships as a likely cause of stress. In addition, they are learning themselves and coming into their own views which has an influence on how their relationships work. Friendships, parent-child relations, peer conflicts, sibling rivalry, bullying, ability or inability to develop relationships are all contributions to stress.

Children experience traumatic events in the same way adults do. Researchers argue that some traumatic events permanently alter the brain of a child such as domestic violence. These traumatic events can cause stress in a child and can lead to a lifetime of issues with managing stress. Adverse childhood experiences (which is a newly researched concept), can be traumatic. Events such as parental separation, someone being jailed in the home, experiencing someone in the home suffering from violence or addictions. Additionally, exposure to violence via the media can cause bicurious trauma in children. Oftentimes, children are dealing with trauma and it goes unnoticed. Stress caused by these events can be potentially fatal to children.

Additionally, children are learning to deal with pressure. The pressure to perform well, dress in current style trends, to look a certain way and even to behave a certain way. They have expectations from peers, parents, teachers, and society as a whole which contributes to their stress threshold. Pressure significantly influences children wellbeing and without the development of coping skills to deal with failure, it can potentially lead to self-harming behaviors. Pressures to be perfect on every level and experiencing failure from falling short can be fatal.

As access to social media becomes more easily accessible to youth, it is important that we support and manage their stress accordingly. With the above signs of stress in mind, here are 7 ways we can support stressed youth. 

  1. Listen to children without interruption or judgment. No matter how difficult, authentically listen. Turn off the radio in the car when the kids enter. Ask how their day was and don’t say a word after that. Let them talk. Don’t worry if it doesn't work the first day, keep trying. Ask them their views on popular issues. Use it as an opportunity to really discuss and help shape their views.
  2. Inquire about feelings and emotion. Say “you seem unhappy. Please tell me about how you feel. What are you feeling right now? I sense something.” Then just let them talk.
  3. Offer your child a communication outlet. Suggest the help of a professional or a family member. Ask “Would you like to talk to someone other than me? I can find you someone to talk things through with.” Or “I know you like talking to your uncle. Go ahead and give him a call. I can let him know your calling.”
  4. Model self-care. Explain to children what you do when you are stressed as an adult. Let them experience your deep breathing techniques, your yoga workouts or travel to the gym with you. Tell them why you do these things. Then offer them to your child as an outlet. Get them a gym membership. Get them a membership to the community center. Teach them to care for themselves.
  5. Provide balance with all activities. Kids need activities but parents can monitor when it is too much. If your child doesn’t have an outlet find them one. A club at school or some activity after school like swimming, running, soccer etc. If your child has many activities let them know it is okay to let something go when it is too much. Push them to let go of things when appropriate. Assess their stress level and intervene. Balance keeps the pressure down.
  6. Talk about relationships. Kids often don’t openly talk about their feelings in terms relationships they develop. But relationships are so important to children as they grow and develop. They are trying to navigate people and emotion without any experience to draw upon. So you may have to use examples from your childhood, a neighbor or a friend to teach your children what healthy relationships are like and how to navigate unhealthy ones.
  7. Address every cry for help. Parents often get fatigued with balancing parenting and careers. However, don’t ignore behaviors and indicators of stress assuming a child just wants attention. Address the behavior. If they want attention, give it. Attention doesn’t equate spoiling but it is important to give that quality attention to your child to help them balance stress.

Stress can be managed. However, children need to be supported in learning how to manage stress. They need coping skills and balance in order to magnate stress well. Caregivers are essential in helping children navigate life challenges, practice self-care, cope with failures and manage stress. Stress does not have to be fatal.