“I’m stressed out.” You’ve probably said those words at some point, and it may surprise you to hear your child utter them as well. The good news is, stress in small doses can be beneficial: It fosters resilience, sharpens mental focus, and boosts the drive to succeed.
Intense and protracted stress, on the other hand, causes the stress hormone cortisol to flood the brain. When the brain is flooded with cortisol for a prolonged period of time, brain functions can break down. In children, prolonged stress can actually lead to a lower IQ and less white matter in the brain (the portion of the brain that affects learning). Undetected and unaddressed stress can cause permanent, irreversible damage to a child’s developing brain.
Older students may have the ability to recognize when they’re overly stressed—but they don’t always ask for help. Younger students typically lack the insight to recognize stress. Here are ten stress warning signs you should look for in your child.
1. Changes in appetite. In the short term, stress suppresses the appetite. Prolonged stress has the opposite effect. Long-term stress releases cortisol, which increases appetite (usually causing cravings for high-fat, sugary foods).
2. Withdrawal from activities and friends. Stress can lead children to abandon the people and things they used to derive joy from—they may lose motivation or feel they’re not good enough.
3. Irritability and impatience. Children dealing with intense stress experience strong emotions. Not knowing how to deal with these feelings, they often become moody and lash out at those around them.
4. Bedwetting. Stress doesn’t cause a child to wet the bed, but some manifestations of stress—seeking comfort by eating salty snacks (that cause water retention) and sleep deprivation can make bedwetting worse in a child who is already prone to the problem.
5. Sleep problems. Stress puts the mind on overdrive. This can cause insomnia, nightmares, resistance to going to bed, or trying to work their way into the parents’ bed.
6. Attempts to get out of school. Frequent trips to the school nurse and/or complaining that they “feel sick” in the morning and should be allowed to stay home from school are common symptoms of stress. A particularly major red flag is if kids try to get out of school on the day of an important exam.
7. Unusual and unexplained crying spells. Stress causes frustration. Younger kids especially may react to this frustration by bursting into tears.
8. Stomach aches and digestive problems. The fight-or-flight reaction triggered by stress causes a surge in adrenaline that primes the body to react to danger. Energy is diverted from “non-essential” functions such as digestion to the heart and muscles.
9. Excessive worry and negative thoughts. In older students, frequent statements such as “What if I don’t get into a good college?” or “What if I don’t get into the Honor Society?” can be signs of academic stress.
10. Drop in grades. Often, stress results from being overscheduled or taking classes that are beyond a student’s ability. Grades often suffer as a result.
What Can You Do to Help Your Stressed Child?
The first step in helping a student who’s dealing with stress is to recognize the symptoms. The more aforementioned symptoms that your child exhibits, the more likely stress could be the cause. Spend one-to-one time with the child, listen, and try to come up with solutions together. If your child participates in multiple extracurricular activities, would it help to give something up? Is your child on an academic path that’s too rigorous?
Consider enlisting the assistance of a therapist or school counselor. Sometimes kids open up more to a non-parent. And encourage your child to get plenty of physical activity if he or she doesn’t already. Exercise reduces levels of stress hormones and boosts feel-good chemicals called endorphins.
If you think your child’s school environment is putting too much stress on him, consider looking into alternatives. Online schools allow students to receive a challenging education while enjoying the benefits of learning from home.