Column: Helping your child manage stress
Commentary by Mary Ian McAteer, MD
As adults, we know stress is part of life. And while childhood is often thought of as a carefree time, children of all ages – even toddlers and preschoolers – can experience stress. Causes vary based on age and other factors, and it may actually be a combination of issues that leads to stress in children. Stress-inducing situations at school or daycare, such as moving to a new school, adjusting to a new teacher and bullying, are most common. Teenagers may be stressed about peer relationships and/or academic performance.
In children symptoms of stress can include frequent headaches or stomachaches, changes in temperament, refusing to eat or lack of appetite, difficulty sleeping and unwillingness to try new things. Because it’s often hard for kids to put their feelings into words, parents should watch for these signs, especially when life changes occur. If your child is stressed, and you can determine why, you’re in the best position to help him or her with solutions. When there’s stress within the family, such as divorce, serious illness or death, it’s important to maintain a dialogue with kids about what’s going on and how it’s affecting them and the family. It’s okay to be honest with your children and let them know if you’re sad. When you model good stress management behaviors, your children will learn how best to cope themselves.
While it’s inevitable children will have times of stress in their lives, too much stress – or worries that continue to multiply – can lead to more serious health concerns. Pediatricians are trained to recognize when children are not functioning as expected and can be great resources for strategizing ways to cope. Before visiting your child’s doctor, make a list of any life changes and the signs you’ve noticed. Talking with an expert who is objective – but also knows your child – can be reassuring. A pediatrician can also recommend other professionals or healthcare specialists. Referral to a specialist should not be viewed as the family’s failure to help their child cope, but rather a means to gain additional insight and strategies to successfully manage the issues.
Mary Ian McAteer, MD, specializes in pediatrics at Riley Physicians Pediatrics – Meridian Crossing, 11590 N. Meridian St., Suite 300, Carmel. She may be contacted at 688-5220.