As part of Stress Awareness Month in April, we are talking about stress all through the month.
Often we consider stress a manifestation of our adult lives from pressures of money, relationships, families and so on.
It is easy to ignore signs of stress and anxiety in children.
What do children have to be stressed about?
Children have their own share of daily demands and when things don't go as smoothly or their daily routine is disrupted or things change, they can feel unsettled. With increasing busy lives, children often do not have space for creativity in their daily lives.
Children as young as 4 years old can feel stress and anxiety very acutely. There might be several reasons for this. Stress is our inability to meet demands that are placed on us, and this can sometimes be created internally by a chasm between what we think we should be doing versus what are capable of doing. Children can feel anxiety from stressful social situations, academic pressures or in form of separation from parents and carers. They might also be affected by world news or changes in their family situations and routines, such as moving house, starting new school, friends moving away, family celebrations and visitors.
How do we recognise stress in children?
Often kids of all ages find it difficult to vocalise emotions, particularly complex ones such as worry.
Because of a difference in temperament, some might feel this more acutely than others. But often they do not know or have the tools to understand these worries or be able to vocalise them. As parents and carers, we can tell them that 'it will all be ok' but it doesn't help relieve the anxiety.
From my own experience as a parent, I know that a sensitive child can worry about things they see on television or hear about such as climate change, endangered animals, but equally about changing bodies, peer pressure, tests, and changing friend circles.
This worry and anxiety can manifest itself in form of loss of appetite, mood swings, loss of concentration. There might be a sudden change in personality, and the child could become withdrawn, violent, aggressive, or uncommunicative. Younger children can become more clingy or start sucking their thumb, picking their nose or bedwetting. Older children might start bullying other children, or lose focus and self-motivation, and have a noticeable drop in academic performance.
No two children are the same and these signs and symptoms will vary according to the child's personality and circumstances.
Stresses, worries and anxieties can have a huge impact on children's mental and physical well-being. It can affect their self-esteem and confidence, and can stop them from attempting new things and being scared of unfamiliar situations, all of which should be part of a normal growing- up experience.
Prolonged exposure to stress can have a huge impact on our brains, and cause long-term damage especially in developing brains.
What can parents do?
Being aware of a change in the child's personality is very important.
NHS has some useful advice on the kind of things parents can do to support a stressed child.
Research from American Psychological Association has shown that it is extremely important for parents to carve out quality time with their children everyday where they can talk about their school and lives in a relaxed, and calm manner.
Plan and prepare a children beforehand and talk to them about any stressful situations, change in routine, any social gatherings, and help them understand what to expect.
Calm reassurance can help so that children understand that worries can be a part of everyday life, and things will change. Lots of hugs, cuddles and kisses will soothe any separation anxiety in a toddler.
By staying emotionally connected to our child, and talking to them regularly, we can help them develop flexibility and self-regulation so that they can build resilience, and the ability to bounce back from setbacks.
Meditation, mindfulness and yoga can all give children the tools to recognise triggers, learn how to breathe and achieve calmness when they feel anxious. Exercise and hobbies also help children regain self-confidence, and be more comfortable in social situations.
It is important for parents to support and take their concerns seriously, but it is also important to give them appropriate tools that they can use to voice their worries and find means to talk about any such worries together, and to make them realise that it is perfectly normal to have worries. Our 'Calm your worries' box aims to do just this. Based on research in psychology and drawn from personal experience, and expert opinion, we bring a carefully selected box to help children with worries and anxieties.
Finally, all stress is not bad. There is also good stress, and normal worries and stress are part of every childhood.
It is important to help children understand that worries are normal, everyone gets worried, and that it helps to talk about them. Normal stress promotes healthy growth, coping skills, resilience and the ability to make mistakes and bounce back from them. It is when the stress becomes toxic that it manifests into acute anxiety and depression.
As parents, it is also our responsibility to look after our own mental health and well-being, as our stress can have a huge impact on our children's health. Children can get stressed if they notice a lot of stress around them in the family, and especially if they see a parent who is stressed. Therefore, as parents, it is very important for us to learn how to manage our own emotions and practice self-care.
<-- Find out more about how The Art Tiffin can help with your mental health and well-being, and find a moment of calm amongst the stresses of everyday life.
Dr Pragya Agarwal is the founder of the social enterprise The Art Tiffin that campaigns for creativity and mental health. Part of profits from each box sold goes to mental health charities. Pragya runs workshops with homeless shelters and schools to inspire self-esteem and confidence through creative thinking.