How stress can affect your child’s behaviour and what to do

Providing your child with the right tools to cope with stress will help them throughout their lives as they grow and experience unexpected situations.

 Is your child suffering from stress? Here’s how you can help them.

When a child is acting out, parents tend to feel completely helpless not knowing why it is occurring. One aspect that many parents do not consider is that their child may be experiencing stress and is unable to understand their own emotions and their actions.

“Often parents explain tantrums as a child being naughty, or those teenage mood swings. However, just as stress can negatively impact adults, the effects of stress on children can cause moodiness, emotional swings, and acting out,” explains Rashmita Davechand, brand manager for Stress-Away Tibb Health Sciences.

“We may not think that children can experience the same levels of stress as adults, however when you consider all that they have to undergo such as separation anxiety in pre-schoolers, school pressures, social interactions, and even overwhelming situations such as death, divorce, and a pandemic, it makes absolute sense that they would respond by acting out.”

Signs and symptoms of stress

Although children, especially younger ones, do not know how to handle their emotions, when a child is stressed, behavioural and habitual changes can be indicators:

  • Short-term behavioural changes such as mood swings, acting out and changes in sleep patterns can occur, while physical effects such as headaches and stomach aches are also indicators.
  • They can have trouble concentrating in school or even withdraw completely from social interaction.
  • Younger children can revert back to thumb sucking and hair twirling.
  • Older children can start bullying behaviour, lying, and taking a stand against authority.
  • A child will overreact to small problems when they become stressed.

Why is my child stressed?

According to the American Psychology Association, what parents think their children worry about and what they actually worry about is very different. They found that children, ages 8-17, worry about doing well in school, getting into good colleges, and their families’ finances.

“As parents, there are different ways in which to help our children manage their levels of stress, and it starts with acknowledging that we understand that they do have worries in their lives,” suggests Davechand. “Making changes to everyday living and how we interact with our children can help them deal with their emotions and find calmer ways to express themselves.

Stress and Covid-19

The onset of the coronavirus pandemic brought additional stress to children. Not being able to focus on schoolwork, hand in assignments, receive work due to lack of internet connection, and keep up with their classmates was one of the biggest stressors that children are facing.

According to an informal South African study, 21% of children required psychosocial support to deal with these feelings of anxiety and uncertainty. “Together with worrying about the health of their family and themselves, and, in some cases, parents losing their jobs, the stress and anxiety felt by children during this time increased,” comments Davechand.

How to help your child navigate stress

Davechand suggests the following stress-relieving options:

  1. Children don’t often understand the emotions they are experiencing and how to express what is wrong and how they are feeling to their parents. Being able to identify it and give it a name shows your child that you understand and will also allow them to be able to identify that emotion the next time they feel that way.
  2. Listen to your child patiently and calmy when they are acting out, without interrupting and judging. Give them the opportunity to voice their frustrations instead of feeling alone. React positively to what they tell you and show constant support. Sometimes being able to talk to someone about how they are feeling is all that they need to move on.
  3. Think of ways, together with your child, how they can deal with these feelings. If there is one situation that is causing their stress, talk about how to handle it, and get rid of their negative feelings. Encourage your child to be part of the brainstorming process and offer supportive and constructive commentary on their ideas. If there is a way to limit situations that your child finds stressful, try and do so.
  4. Just be there. Knowing that they have the support and strength of a parent to turn to helps children cope better.

“Children often choose not to speak to a parent when they are feeling stressed., thinking that they can cope on their own.  This is common with older children who are more reluctant to seek out a parent to talk to,” explains Davechand.

Other options such as proper rest with good nutrition and a stress support supplement can help with managing your child’s stress.