DEAR MAYO CLINIC: I have two children, ages 12 and 15. They are both good students, play athletics, and enjoy spending time with friends. While the two children are back to school in person after the COVID-19 pandemic, my oldest seems to have less interest in the activities. How do I know if I need to ask for help?
ANSWER: Life is full of unpredictable changes. Some can be exciting and motivating, while others can lead to increased stress, poor health, and anxious feelings.
Stress is an automatic physical, mental and emotional response to difficult events. It is a normal part of everyone’s life, including the life of children. They have faced many new, potentially stressful situations during the COVID-19 pandemic. For some, there have been changes in school routines and activities, family changes with parents moving or career breaks, and concerns about their health or even the loss of a loved one.
Children, especially teens, are unlikely to ask their parents for help with their stress. Sometimes they don’t even recognize that they feel stressed.
As a caregiver, you may notice that something is wrong before him. Helping your children cope with their stress can lead to more balanced and healthy lives.
Children are not mini-adults, and they can express their stress in different ways than you might think. Here are some signs that your children may be stressed or might need extra support:
• Emotional outbursts or increased irritability: Stress leads to more intense feelings of anger and irritability. Your children may have emotional outbursts that are not consistent with their past behavior or the current situation.
• Sleep disturbances: Worries and fears seem to come out at bedtime. Stressed children may have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, or start having nightmares.
• Withdrawing from others: Stressed children may want to spend more time alone and not interact with friends or family.
• Difficulties with school: Significant changes in your children’s school performance can be a sign of stress. Stress makes it harder for children to concentrate during the school day or when doing homework. Additionally, issues with friends and classmates can cause stress.
• Frequent headaches or stomach aches: When children are stressed or anxious, their bodies release the hormone cortisol into the blood. This can trigger abdominal cramps and headaches.
• Increased challenge: Stressed children may feel angry or overwhelmed. They are looking for ways out of the situation that makes them uncomfortable. This can lead to provocative and stubborn behavior.
Keep in mind that children’s signs of stress can vary based on age, personality, and coping skills. The key is to watch for any drastic or sudden changes from your children’s past behaviors.
While not all stress can be eliminated, you can prevent excess stress from affecting your children’s lives by:
• Establish and maintain routines. Routines are so important. If your family wasn’t routine oriented before, now is a good time to implement daily routines to provide structure and support. You can start a new habit at bedtime, or strive to have dinner together a few nights a week to ensure consistency at home for your children.
• Encourage a return to previous activities. During the pandemic, many activities for children were disrupted. Based on your situation and local health recommendations, encourage your children to try a new or previously favorite activity or sport again.
• Find humor in everyday life. A good laugh doesn’t just lighten the mood, it also activates and relieves the body’s response to stress. Find ways to laugh with your kids by watching comedies, reading comics or jokes, playing games, and helping each other find humor in everyday life.
• Play as a family. Be physical with your kids and find ways to play as a family. Put on some music and dance in the kitchen, take an after-dinner bike ride, or play games with the family. These activities can reduce the way stress affects you and your children.
• Encourage healthy eating and sleeping habits. Tired or hungry children are seldom happy. Make sure your children’s diets include a mix of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein to keep them full and focused. Lack of sleep can trigger an overreaction or emotional outbursts, so follow a bedtime routine to make sure your kids get enough sleep every night.
• Practice deep breathing together. Deep breathing is a great way to reduce stress levels. Help your children to practice by taking a deep breath for five seconds, hold for two seconds and release for a count of five seconds. If your kids are feeling anxious, try this simple exercise to loosen the mind from the worrying frame.
• Seek help from children’s teachers. Take the opportunity to get information from their teachers. Ask how your children are doing, if they are making new friends, or if the teacher notices any problems between your children and other students. Often, children do not talk to their parents about problems they are having at school because they may feel embarrassed. Sometimes parents are surprised to learn that their children are being bullied in school. Teachers and school staff can be your eyes and ears when your children are not with you.
• Manage your mental health. It is difficult to be an effective parent if you have mental health issues. Take steps to avoid burnout and stress in your life.
It can be difficult when your child is stressed. If you find that your child’s behavior persists or worsens, see your child’s primary health care provider for additional resources.
– Fiona Swanson, Social Services, Mayo Clinic Health System in Mankato, Minnesota
The information in this post was accurate at the time of posting. Due to the fluid nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, scientific understanding, as well as guidelines and recommendations, may have changed since the original publication date.