Your daughter, now in grade one, seems to be making friends and handling the school work. But you’ve noticed that she’s started twisting a strand of hair and sucking on it — a lot. Is this a sign that she’s feeling stressed? Or is it just a meaningless habit?
A toddler under stress is likely to throw himself on the floor and scream. Pretty clear. But by six or seven, children have learned to control the way they express their emotions more, and it may be harder for parents to pick up on indications that something is bothering them.
Susan Dinsmore* finds her eight-year-old Keith’s signs of stress can even be annoying. “He becomes really clingy,” she says. “The other night he came into our bed and said, ‘I don’t want to be by myself.’ It can get so he doesn’t want to be in any room on his own.” She also finds Keith is overly sensitive at these times — a negative comment from a sibling can lead to outbursts of “Everybody hates me!”
Susan Gross, a psychological associate with the Waterloo Region District School Board in Ontario, says that children can be quite individual in how they show stress. “It depends on the temperament of your child,” she explains. “One child who is maxed out on his coping abilities will be grumpy, stomping around and maybe have bursts of aggression. Another will withdraw, become weepy or cling to a parent.”
*Names changed by request.
So what can parents look for if they are concerned? Any behaviour that is out of the ordinary for your child might be a sign of stress, says Gross, adding that parents know their own children best. Here are some more signs that might signal a concern:
• Physical symptoms, such as headaches, backache or tummy aches, especially if these are linked to definite times or situations (for example, having a tummy ache every morning before school but feeling fine on weekends).
• Sleeping less, or more, than usual or having nightmares.
• Increased or decreased appetite.
• Regressing or acting more babyish. Some kids under stress will want to seek comfort by doing things they did when they were younger — sucking on their fingers, for example, or twirling their hair.
• Increased sensitivity. Gross says many toddlers are sensitive to little things (tags in shirts, seams in socks, loud noises, etc.), but most will have outgrown it by this age. Under stress, though, such irritations become more upsetting.
• Hostility or moodiness.
• Crying more than normal.
• Nervousness or anxiety in general. “Some kids can explain what is bothering them, but others are less verbal and may just seem generally anxious,” Gross says.
• Withdrawing from friends.
The challenge for parents is that these behaviours are often seen as misbehaviour. “You know when you have a baby who is irritable and fussy, and then the next day the baby gets a stuffy nose and a fever, and you realize: Oh, that’s what was wrong,” Gross says. “It’s much the same with these signs of stress. Parents often think the child is just acting up. But it helps if you can step back and think: OK, could he be stressed about something, has something in his life changed or are there issues I don’t know about?”
That doesn’t mean accepting bad behaviour. “You can say, ‘I’m thinking you might be worried about the tests at school, and I understand that preparing for them is stressful. But it’s still not OK to hit your brother,’” Gross says. With some kids, she adds, you can say, “Hey, what’s going on with you?” and they’ll tell you, but with others, you have to make educated guesses.
If you suspect your child is stressed but don’t really know why, Gross suggests saying something like “You seem a bit out of sorts right now. How can I help?” Just knowing someone cares about their feelings can help reduce children’s stress and may help them to open up. It isn’t helpful, she adds, to turn it into an interrogation by saying “Why are you acting like this?” because often the child doesn’t know why.
Dinsmore says the challenge is finding the balance. “We want to be consistent about family rules and not give in to his behaviour,” she says. “But I also try to empathize and let him know we understand his frustrations.”
That empathy, says Gross, may be the best solution a parent can offer. “You may not be able to fix the problem, and you might not even know what it is,” she says, “but what you can do is help him cope with his feelings.”
Talking about stressful feelings
It’s helpful to give kids the vocabulary to talk about how they are feeling, says Susan Gross, a psychological associate with the Waterloo Region District School Board in Ontario. Here’s how:
• Label their feelings as they are experiencing them. “Wow, you must have felt proud when you finished that project!” or “Walking into that cave was pretty scary.”
• Tell stories about your experiences and describe your feelings. “I was really embarrassed one day at school because I tore a hole in my pants. I didn’t want any of the kids to see, but they did.”
• Help your child define how big his or her feeling is. “Is this a pea-sized problem? Watermelon-sized? Elephant-sized?”