Managing stress among children

Stress has become such a buzz word these days that most people would be lost if all of a sudden it was eliminated in their lives. Just like adults, children too experience stress.

There are two types of stress that children experience; positive and toxic stress. Positive stress is what is often referred to as the fight or flight response; it helps a child during potentially life threatening situations. But when the child is exposed to this kind of stress every day, it becomes toxic, according to Dr Edward Mugisha, a paediatrician.

One of the biggest stressors for children is change. Children need a family that provides stability and a sense of continuity. They need to understand that whatever they know and love is protected.

“In the early years, mothers come off as pacifiers for the children, providing comfort and relief for them, whenever they need it. Fathers on the other hand provide the protection and structure they understand and trust. All this begins to change when the child starts having to interact with the outside world through school,” Dr Mugisha explains.

Questioning their position
He reveals that as children start to move into wider circles, they start to notice and question their position in their families and in their circles, which triggers off stress.

“For instance, a child might start to compare themselves with their peers. They might think their friend dresses better or looks better than them. This is a normal developmental situation which should be managed by parents or caregivers. Parents need to teach children to be happy with who they are and what they have; this is what we call social conditioning,” he elaborates.

Education to blame
Evelyne Kharono Lufafa, a child psychologist, points out the current education system which denies children a chance to be children as another big cause of childhood stress. She says children need freedom to play and explore on their own, independent of direct adult guidance and direction, which helps them learn to solve problems on their own, control their own lives and develop their own interests.

“This kind of play is fast becoming obsolete, with parents and teachers preferring to structure and organise every minute of the child’s day. By depriving children of opportunities to play on their own, they miss opportunities to learn how to take control of their own lives. We may think we are protecting them, but in fact, we are diminishing their joy, restricting their sense of self-control, which increases the risk of suffering from anxiety, depression, and other disorders,” she warns.

Kharono advises parents and caregivers to acclimatise themselves with childhood stress indicators because learning and addressing what the problems are will help children in the long run.

“It is advisable to treat stress in its early stages. When stress goes undiagnosed and untreated, it evolves into child depression which is extremely difficult to treat or manage,” Kharono relates.

Signs of stress in children
It might not be easy to notice childhood stress; in fact, it is usually mistaken for behavioural cahllenges. “I recently got a nine-year-old patient who was referred to me because her parents and teachers did not know what to do.

She was battling stress. The child had recently experienced unexpected change and was having a difficult time adjusting to her new environment. I addition to this, her new environment was less welcoming yet her parents expected her to settle in easily. She was experiencing rejection from her peers, which she could not explain to her parents. She reacted by becoming violent at school and rude at home,” Kharono relates.

To prevent stress from happening, Kharono encourages parents to create an environment where a child is able to openly talk about problems and their feelings. One of the most important and effective ways human beings can deal with stress is by talking to someone about their problem. Even if your child is unable to specifically express what they are upset about, asking and encouraging them to talk can make a difference.
A child might not be able to fully express their feelings of stress and anxiety but there are some common symptoms to watch out for. They will act out, withdraw or become violent.

Other possible signs of childhood stress may include; stomach pains, headaches,changes in behavior,mood swings, sleep problems and lack of concentration at school among others.
This and more topics will be discussed at the School of Life Event on December 4, at Isbat University.

What to do
Keep track of your child’s behaviour and moods and watch for any possible signs. Ask her teacher about how she behaves at school and observe how she is interacting with friends and family members.

Ask questions about what she might be worried about or things that might not be making her feel good. Generally, younger children do not fully understand the concept of words such as stress and anxiety.

As much as you might want to jump in and help offer solutions, allow her time to fully express her thoughts and emotions, before making comments or expressing your opinions.

Some children may feel more comfortable talking about their problems while engaging in an activity with a parent. Do something you both enjoy, such as going for a walk, making cookies, or playing basketball in the driveway, before asking your child to discuss a problem he may be having.