Stress Research Sounds Health Alarms for Children

Does it feel like your “stress temperature” has gone up around ten degrees the last few years?  According to the American Psychological Association’s Stress in America survey, your kids are feeling it too.  The new survey details the impact of different types of stress on the family, and the news raises some serious concerns about how children are coping with it.  According to the survey, 17 percent of children who say their parent is always stressed are likely to feel high levels of stress themselves compared to two percent of kids who report their parents are never stressed.  This means that children are not only aware of the family stress, it is increasing their levels of stress as well.  The ill-effects of stress on children’s health is a serious problem, and we know from research that experiencing family stress creates unhealthier kids.  The APA survey provides further data that suggests children and teens likely often turn to unhealthy eating or passive, inactive behavior to cope with stress.  TV watching and listening to music are higher in stressed tweens and kids, perhaps contributing to the higher levels of pediatric obesity measured over the past five years.

Far from being “character building” for children, stress places children in a situation in which they are worried but have little or no power to correct the situation.  Children are perceptive, and quickly pick up on parents’ frustration, more frequent family arguments, and negative changes in the emotional tone of the family.  What happens when they feel this tension but can’t do anything about it?  Children translate these feelings into bad habits and behaviors.  The APA survey found that parents typically underestimate the amount of impact their levels of stress have on children in the family, which is easy to justify when parents are worried about a job or financial situation.

Given the fact that parents have real worries and that they can’t just make their own stress disappear because of the kids, what can be done to help kids with the situation?

  • Watch those negative offhand comments – Its natural to express the stress through comments like “We’re stuck” and “why does it always happen just when we are getting back on our feet,” but kids take these comments literally.  Try to replace these comments with suggestions for action instead, like “we’ve really got to figure out a plan to deal with our bills.”
  • Take a walk instead of turning on the electronics – Role model good stress management by asking the kids to take a walk around the block or playing catch in the backyard.  Even a small amount of physical activity can help reduce stress.
  • Teach the kids to be solutionfocused instead of worry-paralyzed – Ask kids about their own levels of stress and worry, and help them understand how having a plan can make the situation better.
  • Make ‘em laugh – Laughter goes a long way in busting through tension and worry.  Try a family joke night or funny mime competition to keep things funny and active at the same time.

There are a few really informative resources for kids in dealing with stress, and parents can encourage kids to read and discuss these books as another way of positive coping:

Stress Can Really Get on Your Nerves! (Laugh And Learn) by Trevor Romain and Elizabeth Verdick provides some helpful suggestions in a fun, approachable format for kids,

Be the Boss of Your Stress (Be The Boss Of Your Body) by Timothy Culbert M.D. and Rebecca Kajander C.P.N.P. M.P.H., health care professionals give their advice for kids in managing worry.