Most adults think of their childhood as the happiest time of their life, but children and teenagers are prone to suffering from stress too – which, because of its detrimental effect on their mood, can even lead to depression. Studies show that almost one in four young people will experience depression before they’re 19 years old, caused by peer pressure, school worries and a lot more. And with SATs exams coming up this spring for primary school children, plus GCSEs and A-Levels in secondary schools this summer, many young people may be feeling anxious. We asked the experts at CABA to share some of the common triggers and tips on supporting a child who is experiencing stress.
Children suffer from stress even more than adults do, as they are exposed to new and confusing environments constantly. Their sense of self-worth is intimately tied to the expectations posed by the adults around them, such as parents and teachers, but their peers can also influence it. If your child’s esteem takes a hit, they will find it challenging to cope with the situation.
Recent studies show that stress levels in children have been increasing over the past decades. This is mainly due to the vast amount of accomplishments they are expected to achieve and the pressure to compete with other kids successfully. Being unsuccessful has become a taboo, generating a deep-set feeling of inadequacy in Indian kids, so much so that our teens and youth have one of the highest suicide rates in the world.
Here are some of the most common stresses in children:
- Disruptions to their daily routine or environment: Any sort of change can throw a child off and bring on stress, even good change like a new after school sports schedule. For some children, a disruption to regular routines can be a source of major stress and anxiety. For example, this could be a shift in the morning routine like a different person taking them to school, or no longer having a weekly soccer game and seeing friends.
- Managing school and social pressures: Whether it’s struggling to study for an upcoming test, or trying to keep up with homework, school is often a source of stress for children and youth. Wanting to fit it, make friends, and greater social media pressure are also stresses that add up. Sleep problems and difficulty getting out of bed in the morning are not unusual for children who are feeling stressed.
- Stress in sports and lessons: Sometimes, starting a new sport, trying out for the team, or taking up an instrument or other lesson can be stressful or overwhelming, especially if a child feels like they are not good enough or can’t keep up.
- Bullying and teasing: Children today are more connected than ever – in the classroom, many also by text, and on social media channels. A bullying text, or conflict in the schoolyard captured on video, can go viral with one click. Bullying, in-person or with an online component, can be a major source of stress for children and youth. Any unkind behaviour and occasional teasing can be hurtful.
- Scary events or news: In a world of endless content and 24-hour news headlines, children are often exposed to too much, too fast. Children of any age can become stressed if they are exposed to media that has disturbing or scary images or videos (e.g. showing natural disasters, terrorism, or violence).
- Difficulty coping with life transitions: Children often feel stress when an experience feels beyond their control, like starting school, the arrival of a new sibling, or moving to a new neighbourhood or city. Even going back to school after the holidays can lead some children to worry about things like adjusting to new classes, teachers or schoolmates.
- Changes in the family: Changes such as divorce, or coping with illness or loss in the family can be extremely stressful for everyone in the family. When these are added to their everyday pressures, stress is magnified.
Whether it’s everyday stress that becomes overwhelming, or a significant stressors in a child’s life, stress can affect how they feel, think, and act.
Sometimes it can be difficult to tell if a child is feeling stressed.
Most of us, and especially children, don’t always recognise that our physical and behavioural changes are actually signs of stress. Maybe we can’t get to sleep for a few days, have a headache, or a lack of appetite. Or we’re withdrawing from people and falling back to more screen time. Many children do not say “I’m feeling stressed” when they are feeling stressed, so it’s important to be a ‘stress detective’.
The way children express stress can vary by age and personality. Some children may giggle when they feel unease, others may be irritable, while others may become withdrawn and quiet. Some children may cry or whine more often than usual, start performing poorly at school, or react with increased aggression or hyperactive behaviour.
Often parents notice the behaviour first. Consider that stress may be the reason behind these behaviours.