From the Heart and Stroke Foundation

Children seem so resilient. One minute they could be crying and wailing at top volume, and within mere minutes, they could be back to happily playing a game of tag. Sometimes, this ability to bounce back makes it seem as if kids are untroubled by the world. But, Heart and Stroke Foundation researcher and Canada Research Chair in Youth and Wellness Dr. Terry Wade says kids often have to deal with the same major, life-changing events as their parents and it can be stressful for them, too. “In my research, I’m looking at how adverse events affect children’s stress levels and their blood pressure. In the kids I’ve seen, over 40% have experienced a death of a family member other than a parent, 34% have faced the death of a pet, 19% of kids have watched their parents’ divorce or separation, and 12% have personally had to stay in hospital. There are also events such as fire, earthquake, seeing a serious accident or injury -these events tend to add to the stress of a child.” This means kids are not immune to the same events that can be stressful and problematic for adults.

Stress levels in kids
In your everyday life, you probably meet a variety of people – some who seem to get upset and flustered at minor inconveniences and others who remain calm even in the worst-case scenarios. Like adults, children also have different stress tolerance levels. “Some children are exposed to serious things, but if they don’t perceive them as stressful, it doesn’t have the same effect,” Dr. Wade says. “It’s interesting because it appears that the problem is not strictly the stressors themselves, but the children’s perceptions of them. If they think it will be stressful, it’s more likely to have a negative outcome for them.”

One of the ways Dr. Wade tested this was by asking kids how they felt about things that have happened to them. Then, asking if they felt they dealt successfully with it or not. “Were they able to effectively cope, to feel confident about their ability to handle it – or did these things tend to anger or overwhelm them?” Dr. Wade asks. “Their responses gave us a good idea of how prone they were to stress. “

Dr. Wade says that parenting style is one thing that may affect a kid’s reaction to stress. “Parents themselves and their parenting behaviours will lead to different levels of anxiety in children. Parents who are more strict, inflexible and demanding will likely lead to kids who report being more anxious and stressed, rather than those who are more kind and supportive in parenting.”

What to watch for
Stress can appear in a variety of different ways, so it may not be immediately easy to tell whether your child is actually experiencing stress or a different emotion. But, Dr. Wade advises, watch for changes in behavior such as not taking care of personal hygiene, not talking as openly or often, dropping marks, overeating on unhealthy foods, lack of motivation to be active, breaking objects on purpose or increases in emotional outbursts. “Any sudden changes in behaviour could put up a red flag for parents to be concerned.”

How to help
Learning how to positively cope with stress is useful for everyone, but these skills can be especially beneficial to kids to learn the ability now, so it can last a lifetime. “The skills children learn will be extremely important in helping them deal with stress now, then later as teens and adults. It will give them more positive ways to deal with these stressors, rather than suppressing them, which will lead to more positive results, health wise and socially.”

But there’s no formula for removing all the stress from your child’s life. Dr. Wade admits: “Sometimes, as a parent myself, I wish I had all the answers. But, I think parents can both provide a level of support to help kids deal with their problems and also help them assess things objectively.” He says parents should try to keep an open dialogue with their kids about stress and maybe even share some of their own coping techniques – whether that is deep breathing, physical activity or hobbies such as reading or doing puzzles.

Read about the physical activity needs of children.

Posted: April 1, 2009

Heart and Stroke Foundation


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