Here, Dr Sabina Dosani – Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist and Clinical Partner, discusses the signs that your child is stressed and gives some very practical tips on how you can help.
Stress is sneaky. It creeps up on our children and can cause chaos. Stressed people are often the last to recognise what is happening. Our children are no exception. Just because your daughter isn’t complaining about finding maths stressful, it doesn’t mean she’s not suffering. If your toddler seems to be behaving differently: irritable, crying more than usual, getting nightmares and regressing, chances are she’s stressed. Likewise, if younger children are permanently tired, not sleeping, whining and doing badly at school, they too may be stressed. Teenagers, on the other hand, may surprise you with outbursts of anger, skipping school and generally feel bad and miserable about themselves and the rest of the world.
Children who have ongoing stress are more likely to develop colds, digestive problems, anxiety disorders, headaches and obesity. Unless they learn to cope with stress, they’re more likely to misuse drugs and alcohol in their teens and adult life and become depressed and suicidal.
It could be almost anything. Common sources of stress include the death of a pet, arrival of a new brother or sister, dad being made redundant, parental separation, moving home, changing school, exams, university applications, being bullied, the death of a grandparent or an unresolved family argument.
Robust, trustworthy relationships with adults are enormously helpful. It doesn’t matter who they are: parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, godparents, family friends or teachers. Stressed children may not know what is causing it and it is often a mixture of more than one difficulty. What helps is having someone who can actively listen to the child and who is prepared to ask open questions to tease out what is wrong.
Other stress busters:
Even very young children can learn a relaxation exercise called progressive muscle relaxation.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation relaxes the body progressively as children focus on different muscle groups. There are 3 basic steps:
The progressive tense-hold-relax sequence moves up or down through the body. Some children prefer to move from toes and feet up towards their face. Others prefer to move down from their head, beginning with scrunching their eyes up and working down the body.
Although this is a great exercise to do at home, it’s worth learning a more portable relaxation technique as well. It might feel a bit odd the first time you do this with your child, but apart from being hugely relaxing (it affects a person’s nervous system on a deep, physical level) it can be nurturing and bonding.
Tensing and relaxing muscles is not practical for most children on the school bus before a Geography GCSE mock. For those out-and-about times, there is another relaxation technique that children like because they can do it anywhere and nobody else can see what they’re up to. I call it ‘the calming place’.
Find a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed for a few minutes, and close your eyes. Cast your mind back to the time in your life you felt most deeply relaxed. Some people like to think of a holiday, but feel free to choose anywhere. Imagine yourself in that calming place now. Try to bring it to life vividly, using all your senses. What can you see, hear, taste, smell and feel? Stay in the place for as long as it takes to feel calm. One of the great things about very young children is that they are better at imagining than adults. When you teach them to imagine their calming place, they have an individualised, portable stress buster, for life.
When my friend Janet taught her daughter Ellie how to imagine a special calming place, they made a collage of it together. Ellie imagined herself by a lake, in a woodland clearing close to her grandmother’s house. She drew herself in the scene and cut out felt trees and shiny blue material for the lake. When the collage was finished, she imagined herself here, telling her mother how she could feel the breeze on her face, smell flowers, feel soft grass in her and in her mind’s eye see herself dipping her fingers into the shallow water and making ripples.
Janet wrote down what Ellie described and every evening, she read it back to her. Ellie practised retreating to her calming place: “It was hard at first,” she remembers, “but once you learn to do it, you can take it anywhere.” A bit like riding a bike.
11 year old Anton has used this relaxation trick too. He was being bullied at school, and although the bullying had stopped, he was very stressed out in the mornings before school and didn’t want to go. He imagines being by the sea, listening to the lapping of the waves and tasting the salt spray on his face. Although he hasn’t got a dog, he imagines his uncle’s Labrador is with him and that her can stroke her fur. In the distance, he hears and ice-cream van and can smell his favourite flavour: raspberry ripple. When he gets into school, he feels calm and ready to face the day.
Older children may struggle to visualise at first. The trick is to practice when they are not feeling particularly tense, so that they can use it easily when they need a stress buster.
With exam period coming up for a lot of children, stress is something most parents will be aware of. Keeping lines of communication open with your child is one of the most important steps to knowing how they are coping.
Clinical Partners is the UK’s largest private mental health partnership, helping children, adults, families and organisations nationwide.