Worries and Troubles

Kids don't have to pay bills, cook dinners, or manage teams. but, just like adults, they have their share of daily demands and things that don't go smoothly. If frustrations and disappointments pile up, kids can get stressed or worried.

It's natural for all kids to worry at times, and because of personality and temperament differences, some may worry more than others. Luckily, parents can help kids learn to manage stress and tackle everyday problems with ease. Kids who can do that develop a sense of confidence and optimism that will help them master life's challenges, big and small.

Main signs and symptoms

Signs and Symptoms

While it's not always easy to recognize when kids are stressed out, short-term behavioral changes — such as mood swings, acting out, changes in sleep patterns, or bedwetting — can be indications. Some kids experience physical effects, including stomachaches and headaches. Others have trouble concentrating or completing schoolwork. Still others become withdrawn or spend a lot of time alone.

Younger children may pick up new habits like thumb sucking, hair twirling, or nose picking; older kids may begin to lie, bully, or defy authority. A child who is stressed may also have nightmares, difficulty leaving you, overreactions to minor problems, and drastic changes in academic performance.

What Do Kids Worry About?

What kids worry about is often related to the age and stage they're in.

Kids and preteens typically worry about things like grades, tests, their changing bodies, fitting in with friends, that goal they missed at the soccer game, or whether they'll make the team. They may feel stressed over social troubles like cliques, peer pressure, or whether they'll be bullied, teased, or left out.

Because they're beginning to feel more a part of the larger world around them, preteens also may worry about world events or issues they hear about on the news or at school. Things like terrorism, war, pollution, global warming, endangered animals, and natural disasters can become a source of worry.

What are the causes?

As providers and caretakers, adults tend to view the world of children as happy and carefree. After all, kids don't have jobs to keep or bills to pay, so what could they possibly have to worry about?

Plenty! Even very young children have worries and feel stress to some degree.

Sources of Stress

Stress is a function of the demands placed on us and our ability to meet them. These demands often come from outside sources, such as family, jobs, friends, or school. But it also can come from within, often related to what we think we should be doing versus what we're actually able to do.

So stress can affect anyone who feels overwhelmed — even kids. In preschoolers, separation from parents can cause anxiety. As kids get older, academic and social pressures (especially from trying to fit in) create stress.

Many kids are too busy to have time to play creatively or relax after school. Kids who complain about all their activities or who refuse to go to them might be overscheduled. Talk with your kids about how they feel about extracurricular activities. If they complain, discuss the pros and cons of stopping one activity. If stopping isn't an option, explore ways to help manage your child's time and responsibilities to lessen the anxiety.

Kids' stress may be intensified by more than just what's happening in their own lives. Do your kids hear you talking about troubles at work, worrying about a relative's illness, or arguing with your spouse about financial matters? Parents should watch how they discuss such issues when their kids are near because children will pick up on their parents' anxieties and start to worry themselves.

World news can cause stress. Kids who see disturbing images on TV or hear talk of natural disasters, war, and terrorism may worry about their own safety and that of the people they love. Talk to your kids about what they see and hear, and monitor what they watch on TV so that you can help them understand what's going on.

Also, be aware of complicating factors, such as an illness, death of a loved one, or a divorce. When these are added to the everyday pressures kids face, the stress is magnified. Even the most amicable divorce can be a difficult experience for kids because their basic security system — their family — is undergoing a tough change. Separated or divorced parents should never put kids in a position of having to choose sides or expose them to negative comments about the other spouse.

Also realize that some things that aren't a big deal to adults can cause significant stress for kids. Let your kids know that you understand they're stressed and don't dismiss their feelings as inappropriate.

What are the options for treatment and help?

Helping Kids Conquer Worry

To help your kids manage what's worrying them:

Find out what's on their minds: Be available and take an interest in what's happening at school, on the team, and with your kids' friends. Take casual opportunities to ask how it's going. As you listen to stories of the day's events, be sure to ask about what your kids think and feel about what happened.

If your child seems to be worried about something, ask about it. Encourage kids to put what's bothering them into words. Ask for key details and listen attentively. Sometimes just sharing the story with you can help lighten their load.

Show you care and understand. Being interested in your child's concerns shows they're important to you, too, and helps kids feel supported and understood. Reassuring comments can help — but usually only after you've heard your child out. Say that you understand your child's feelings and the problem.

Guide kids to solutions. You can help reduce worries by helping kids learn to deal constructively with challenging situations. When your child tells you about a problem, offer to help come up with a solution together. If your son is worried about an upcoming math test, for example, offering to help him study will lessen his concern about it.

In most situations, resist the urge to jump in and fix a problem for your child — instead, think it through and come up with possible solutions together. Problem-solve with kids, rather than for them. By taking an active role, kids learn how to tackle a problem independently.

Keep things in perspective. Without minimizing a child's feelings, point out that many problems are temporary and solvable, and that there will be better days and other opportunities to try again. Teaching kids to keep problems in perspective can lessen their worry and help build strength, resilience, and the optimism to try again. Remind your kids that whatever happens, things will be OK.

So, for example, if your son is worried about whether he'll get the lead in the school play, remind him that there's a play every season — if he doesn't get the part he wants this time, he'll have other opportunities. Acknowledge how important this is to him and let him know that regardless of the outcome, you're proud that he tried out and gave it his best shot.

Make a difference. Sometimes kids worry about big stuff — like terrorism, war, or global warming — that they hear about at school or on the news. Parents can help by discussing these issues, offering accurate information, and correcting any misconceptions kids might have. Try to reassure kids by talking about what adults are doing to tackle the problem to keep them safe.

Be aware that your own reaction to global events affects kids, too. If you express anger and stress about a world event that's beyond your control, kids are likely to react that way too. But if you express your concern by taking a proactive approach to make a positive difference, your kids will feel more optimistic and empowered to do the same.

So look for things you can do with your kids to help all of you feel like you're making a positive difference. You can't stop a war, for example, but your family can contribute to an organization that works for peace or helps kids in war-torn countries. Or your family might perform community service to give your kids the experience of volunteering.

Offer reassurance and comfort. Sometimes when kids are worried, what they need most is a parent's reassurance and comfort. It might come in the form of a hug, some heartfelt words, or time spent together. It helps kids to know that, whatever happens, parents will be there with love and support.

Sometimes kids need parents to show them how to let go of worry rather than dwell on it. Know when it's time to move on, and help kids shift gears. Lead the way by introducing a topic that's more upbeat or an activity that will create a lighter mood.

Highlight the positive. Ask your kids what they enjoyed about their day, and listen attentively when they tell you about what goes great for them or what they had fun doing. Give plenty of airtime to the good things that happen. Let them tell you what they think and feel about their successes, achievements, and positive experiences — and what they did to help things turn out so well.

Schedules are busy, but make sure there's time for your kids to do little things they feel good doing. Daily doses of positive emotions and experiences — like enjoyment, gratitude, love, amusement, relaxation, fun, and interest — offset stress and help kids do well.

Be a good role model. The most powerful lessons we teach kids are the ones we demonstrate. Your response to your own worries, stress, and frustrations can go a long way toward teaching your kids how to deal with everyday challenges. If you're rattled or angry when dealing with a to-do list that's too long, your kids will learn that as the appropriate response to stress.

Instead, look on the bright side and voice optimistic thoughts about your own situations at least as often as you talk about what bothers or upsets you. Set a good example with your reactions to problems and setbacks. Responding with optimism and confidence teaches kids that problems are temporary and tomorrow's another day. Bouncing back with a can-do attitude will help your kids do the same.

What could this mean for the future/Progress?

Reducing Stress

How can you help kids cope with stress? Proper rest and good nutrition can boost coping skills, as can good parenting. Make time for your kids each day. Whether they need to talk or just be in the same room with you, make yourself available. Don't try to make them talk, even if you know what they're worried about. Sometimes kids just feel better when you spend time with them on fun activities.

Even as kids get older, quality time is important. It's really hard for some people to come home after work, get down on the floor, and play with their kids or just talk to them about their day — especially if they've had a stressful day themselves. But expressing interest shows that they're important to you.

Help your child cope with stress by talking about what may be causing it. Together, you can come up with a few solutions like cutting back on after-school activities, spending more time talking with parents or teachers, developing an exercise regimen, or keeping a journal.

You can also help by anticipating potentially stressful situations and preparing kids for them. For example, let your son or daughter know ahead of time that a doctor's appointment is coming up and talk about what will happen there. Tailor the information to your child's age — younger kids won't need as much advance preparation or details as older kids or teens.

Remember that some level of stress is normal; let your kids know that it's OK to feel angry, scared, lonely, or anxious and that other people share those feelings. Reassurance is important, so remind them that you're confident that they can handle the situation.

Where can I find further help and advice?

Helping Your Child Cope

When kids can't or won't discuss their stressful issues, try talking about your own. This shows that you're willing to tackle tough topics and are available to talk with when they're ready. If a child shows symptoms that concern you and is unwilling to talk, consult a counselor or other mental health specialist.

Books can help young kids identify with characters in stressful situations and learn how they cope. Check out Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst; Tear Soupby Pat Schweibert, Chuck DeKlyen, and Taylor Bills; and Dinosaurs Divorce by Marc Brown and Laurene Krasny Brown.

Most parents have the skills to deal with their child's stress. The time to seek professional attention is when any change in behavior persists, when stress is causing serious anxiety, or when the behavior is causing significant problems in functioning at school or at home.

If you need help finding resources for your child, consult your doctor or the counselors and teachers at school.

        

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