We’re living through stressful times and children are feeling it too. How can you help them feel happier and more secure?
Psychotherapist and former teacher Lynda Hudson, a member of the British Psychological Society, offers some advice.
According to Young Minds, the UK’s leading charity for the emotional wellbeing and mental health of children, around one in 10 children in the UK suffers mental illness problems, including stress, anxiety and depression.
The high divorce rate, unstable financial climate, emphasis on exam results and pressure from social media, internet, advertising and the media means childhood is stressful for many children.
“Children pick up on everything around the home including marital problems, your moods and worries,” says psychotherapist Lynda Hudson.
“They also have fit in at school, make friends and keep up academically. It can be a tall order.”
Symptoms of stress in children
According to the American Psychological Association, symptoms of stress can include changes in behaviour:
- Crying easily
- Developing tummy aches and headaches as an avoidance tactic for school or things they don’t want to do
- Reluctance to go to school
- Being negative – saying they are rubbish at everything or no-one likes them
- Sleep problems: Sleeping more or less than usual
- Falling behind at school or lack of interest
- Bed wetting (if very upset)
- Eating too much or little
- Withdrawing from their peer group
“The pressure to succeed starts young these days, with lots of school tests from an early age,” says Lynda.
‘They can feel they are letting themselves down, failing teachers or not keeping up with your expectations. Results matter, but it’s important you praise their effort and let them know that your love is not dependent on exam success.”
Tips for coping
- Don’t nag. If your child is sitting exams, Lynda advises cutting them some slack to concentrate on revising. “Don’t nag about chores – they’ve got enough on their plate. If they are moody or snappy it may be a symptom of the pressure they’re under.
- Calm. If they feel anxious and panicky, encourage them to breathe through their nose, rather than the mouth, which will have a calming effect. Instrumental music can help them chill out while studying – avoid songs with lyrics, which are distracting.
- Relax.Ensure they relax and sleep – both are crucial for coping with stress. Encourage them to exercise outside and eat healthily.”
“I think bullying is worse now because of social media – if you choose to say horrible things about someone, there are many more ways to spread it around,” says Lynda.
“But falling out with friends can be stressful, as can being left out of the group – boys tend to be more physically threatening and girls more unkind verbally.”
Tips for coping
Lynda’s tips on encouraging your child to build and maintain friendship with their peers include:
- Build bonds. Help your child to build bonds with children outside school hours by inviting them to your house. Invite one at a time because if you invite a group, they may still exclude your child – even in their own home.
- Assurance. Drop into the conversation reminders of when they felt more confident and self-assured – get them to visualise coping with difficult situations in their friendship group. Talk about your experience handling similar situations.
- Limit internet access. If your child is the victim of cyber bullying, limit access to the internet and mobile – it’s better they don’t see what is said about them. Seek their permission to get help.
- Resilience. Your child has to develop emotional resilience and learn not everyone will like them, but some will – it’s a question of finding the right friends.
- Confidence. Build their confidence by asking close family and friends to write down genuine compliments about them – emphasizing their qualities, not their appearance.
Dealing with family conflict
New US research, from Auburn University, found marital conflict can be a significant source of stress for young people. It found the impact of marital conflict can hinder a youngster’s mental and intellectual development.
“I always ask parents whose children are stressed about family relationships. Many forget that their child witnesses them being continually scratchy with each other,” says Lynda.
Tips for coping
Lynda’s advice on helping a child deal with family conflict includes:
- Communicate. Children are egocentric and may blame themselves for family breakdowns – if you divorce or separate, make it clear it’s not their fault.
- Avoid negativity. Avoid making negative remarks about your partner in front of children – they will end up taking sides.
- Reassure. You have to reassure them that, even if things change, you and your partner will still love them and they will continue to see both of you.
Across the board worrying
Lynda encourages worried or stressed children to:
- Write down their worries. “Externalizing your worries seems to make them easier to deal with,” explains Lynda.
- Assign worries to a time slot.‘Encouraging them to worry about things at an allotted time and share worries can free up their mind. I usually suggest 15 minutes worry time at 4pm – avoid bedtime though. Don’t be dismissive – listen and make positive suggestions.
Find out more about the child health care options available to your family. You can also discover more information in our Pregnancy and Childcare Centre or if you have a specific question, you can ask our experts.