Kids experience stress differently — how parents can help them cope

This is a post by Lizzi Kampf. She’s a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker in the Emergency Department at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota in St. Paul. She specializes in working with adolescents and children in acute behavioral crisis.

Children and teenagers today encounter more situations that can introduce stress into their world. Reactions to stress can vary based on a child’s background, coping skills, and their developmental level. Because children and teens tend to exhibit stress in very different ways than adults, challenges arise for parents trying to interpret and address what is really bugging their kids.

Children and teens tend to experience stress from many of the same situations that adults do, whether it is conflict with peers, pressure at school or in sports, family dynamics, or troubles with romantic partners. The difference is their minds are still developing the ability to process, interpret, and cope with these stressors. They also lack the life experience to know that they can make it through tough times and the confidence that they do have the ability to manage these difficult situations.

So what can parents do?

  • Encourage communication – Let your kids know that you are there to talk about what’s happening in their life and want to be a part of what is going on for them. Keep open lines of communication, giving them the ability to come to you and trust that you will listen.
  • Normalize feelings – Kids have an innate desire to fit in and can react strongly if they feel they are alone or different. Help them name the feelings they are having and let them know they are not the only one who has ever felt this way.
  • Model adaptive strategies – Kids learn from their parents how to deal with difficult situations. Show them that you can tolerate distress, and they will learn they have that ability as well.

For example, when your pre-adolescent is getting upset over not being able to complete a challenging math assignment you can say, “You seem like you are frustrated. I feel like that when I have a task that is difficult to finish, even though I am trying my best. Sometimes it is helpful for me to try something else for a while and then come back to it later.”

Finally, monitor your child for increasing stress levels. Kids who are becoming withdrawn from family or friends, having difficulty sleeping, or are missing a lot of school may need additional intervention. If it seems like they are not able to cope with challenges they face daily, or are having difficulty managing the stress in their life it may be time to seek professional help. Call your pediatrician or speak with a counselor at your child’s school if you need assistance getting referrals for a mental health professional.

 

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