By Dr. Poonam Khanna, D.O./Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist
Where does it start?
These days, schools, sports teams and colleges are more competitive than ever. Many parents understandably want their children to succeed, but emphasizing that success too early on could pile unnecessary stress on your child. In elementary school, recess games shouldn’t become competitive sports; they are a valuable opportunity for your child to learn teamwork, fitness and friendly competitiveness without the pressure of needing to win. When studying for tests, children should be allowed to develop good learning methods, study habits and test-taking skills without feeling like they must get an A. Friendship and community service should be gratifying social opportunities, not networking or resume filler.
How stress affects different age groups
As you might imagine, the pressures faced by your second-grader are different than the ones your 15-year-old experiences. In the same way, stress implements itself differently. Elementary-school children are still learning self-control. Their social skills aren’t fully developed, and they are trying to learn how to control their emotions and make friends. Because they’re still learning, outbursts can happen. If parents and teachers don’t recognize occasional misbehavior as part of a completely normal developmental process, the child can experience stress.
Signs that your young child could be stressed:
- Fears and nightmares
- Stomachaches and headaches
- Negativity and lying
- Withdrawal or severe shyness
Pre-adolescent children face possibly the most difficult age. They could be experiencing any number of changes—physical changes, hormonal fluctuations, changing schools and more. The result can be frustration in their inability to master situations they previously could. It is important for parents to be available listeners for middle-schoolers. In some cases, you might be their only source of constant support and unconditional acceptance. The most important thing to offer a pre-adolescent is patience. They might be unwilling to talk, or they might be experimenting with things you don’t like. Make the effort to spend time with them, but establish your house rules. Let them know that you’re always there to listen and support them, but hold them to their responsibilities.
High school-age kids face the enormous stress of getting into college. With admissions becoming increasingly competitive, they have to consider the advice of their peers, parents, and school counselors. Do they pursue the major Dad wants them to, or do they enroll in a program that matches their passions? Can they afford to go to a good college? Will they have to take on student loans? Will they be homesick if they choose a college far away? Will they even have good enough grades to get into college? The stress can be overwhelming.
Stress can be evident if grades drop and misbehavior escalates. Some teens attempt to micro-control the parts of life they can and develop eating disorders. Some go the other route and abuse substances. If you see a change in grades or attendance, lack of interest in school or at home, or any significant change in your child’s normal behavior, he or she might be overstressed.
The best way to alleviate your teenager’s stress is to respect their ability to make decisions while offering advice and support. You must give up some control while still monitoring their behavior and intervening if necessary. Curfews and mandatory check-ins are good ideas, especially when your teen can drive. Keep open communication with them, but allow them some freedom.
How to find a balance
It’s not that children should never feel stress—challenges can actually help the brain develop, as children learn new things. Mastering something new always produces some amount of stress, but too much stress is never a good thing. When stress begins affecting your child’s development, he or she could become immobilized and experience stunted development.
Balancing age-appropriate guidelines and expectations with your child’s natural learning process isn’t easy. But with the right kind of encouragement, you can help motivate your child without putting unhealthy pressure on them.
- DO maintain perspective.
Remember that everyone makes mistakes, and nobody’s perfect. It seems like common sense, but parents tend to get caught up in the potential they see for their children and forget that they aren’t superhuman. Think about the way you’d like to be treated by a superior. Do your expectations for yourself align with the ones you have set for your child? Chances are, you’ve been given some wiggle room in your own life, so make sure you’re giving the same to your child.
- DO choose praise over rewards
Rewards are a natural tool many parents use to provide their children with incentive, motivation and gratification. But experts say that offering rewards—such as candy, a special toy or money—might not be the most effective form of motivation. Instead, work to instill a sense of pride in your child. When he or she achieves something great, offer verbal praise, and ask them, “Aren’t you proud of yourself?” Tying hard work to a strong self-worth and self-confidence will help your child develop work habits related to those qualities, not material goods.
- DO hang out with your children.
Spending time together is one of the best ways to recognize, prevent,and manage stress for your child. Quality time allows everyone to develop healthy and realistic expectations of each other. You will be better equipped to offer support if your child is experiencing stress.
- DON’T be a rule breaker.
A child’s home life significantly affects all other aspects of what he or she does. If the home life is unstable, it can contribute to a feeling out of control and, ultimately, stress. Set rules for your household, and stick to them. When a child can rely on a routine he or she is comfortable with, new challenges and experiences won’t seem so daunting.
- DON’T talk at them—DO talk with them.
Communication is a two-way street. Ask your children to tell you their side of the story, and resist merely punishing them when they misbehave. If you understand the reason they acted out, you can help them move past it in a constructive way that will assist in their development. Likewise, have conversations with your children about what they’re learning, what they’re excited about and what scares them. The more you know, the better you’ll understand the pressures they face academically, socially and developmentally.