Your five-year old keeps having melt-downs over small incidents. Your ten-year old has stomach aches every day. And your 15 year-old plays video-games until three in the morning. Are these just normal developmental glitches, or is there something amiss that needs attention?
Stress can challenge the coping skills of even the most resilient people, but children, especially, are vulnerable. To make matters worse, children often communicate their distress with behaviors rather than words.
Parents shouldn’t expect their children to say, “You know Mom, I feel over scheduled, tired, and unable to meet your expectations. I suggest we re-examine our family goals.” Instead, youngsters often resort to emotional outbursts, avoidance and bodily complaints to express their feelings. Unfortunately, many families focus on punishing the symptoms rather than addressing the underlying causes. That is often a huge mistake.
Here are some behavioral signs that your child may be over-stressed:
1. Emotional volatility caused by minor triggers including crying, fighting, anger or more subtle signs such as irritability and over-sensitivity.
2. Numerous aches, pains and other physical symptoms such as headache, stomach ache, fatigue, and asthma attacks.
3. Self-harming behaviors such as nail-biting, hair pulling, anorexia, cutting, burning or non-cosmetic piercing.
4. Avoidant behaviors such as isolation, withdrawal, procrastination, over-sleeping. Additional red flags include unsocial immersion in activities such as video-gaming, internet surfing, music, or even homework and reading books. Other avoidances include withdrawal from activities which were formerly pleasurable such as sports, the arts or socializing with friends.
5. Self-medicating behaviors such as over-eating and substance use. Stress-related over-eating can result in a pattern of binging and/or purging through laxative use or vomiting. Substance use can include prescription drugs, street drugs, inhalants, and the habitual use of “energy drinks”.
6. Distracting activities such as gambling, pornography use, promiscuity, obsessions, compulsions, shoplifting, and partying with high-risk friends.
7. Cognitive difficulties may include a lack of concentration, academic problems and test anxiety.
Of course, some of these behaviors may be normal and transient as children grow up. But if you suspect that these behaviors are interfering with your child’s family life, social life or school success you may want to consult with a clinical counselor. In the meantime, apply some of the following strategies to relieve some of your family’s daily stress.
About the Author: Joan Landes is a therapist at the Center for Couples and Families. She feels that therapy should be an adventure for her clients and (gasp!) actually fun. Joan loves learning the latest neuroscience underpinning human resilience and is enthusiastic about skill development in her clients.