Learn how children and adolescents express stress through their thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. Find some strategies for how you can help your child.
Stress is a normal response to everyday experiences that we perceive as difficult or challenging. Children and adolescents often experience stress when faced with uncertainty or disruptions in their everyday routine.
During difficult or challenging experiences such as COVID-19, you may have noticed changes in your child or adolescent’s behaviour, which can be difficult to understand and address as a parent. It is important to know you are not alone. Difficult and challenging experiences can be very stressful for everyone. Children and adolescents often sense when their parents are feeling worried or stressed, which can increase their own feelings of stress and uncertainty. As a parent, expressing your emotions gives your child or adolescent permission to do the same. It also lets your child or adolescent know that the range of emotions they may be experiencing is OK.
Children and adolescents often express stress through their thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. In response to stress, children and adolescents may show:
- Increased irritability and/or moodiness
- Less interest in activities that they enjoy
- Appetite changes
- Feelings of sadness and/or fear
- Worry and/or fear of leaving the home
- Increased complaining about completing schoolwork or chores
- Physical symptoms of anxiety, such as headaches, nausea, and fatigue
- Increased aggression towards siblings and/or other members of the family
- Outward expression of emotions more frequently, such as crying
- Increased rebellion—for example, not complying with requests to complete a chore
Young children and school-age children
Young children and school-age children often express stress through their emotions and behaviours. You may notice a regression in your child’s reaction to everyday experiences; for example, they may be more easily frustrated when faced with minor obstacles. This is a normal response to stressful situations.
You may also notice your young child or school-aged child:
- Incorporating COVID-19 themes into play—for example, a grandparent going to the hospital because they are sick with a virus.
- Incorporating themes of death and dying into play or conversation due to overhearing the topic on TV or in adult conversations.
- Developing new or regressive behaviours, such as thumb sucking, reliance on comforting objects, and bedwetting.
- Expressing fear of separation from you or other caregivers; for example, if you are going to the grocery store, your child may not want you to leave.
- Having difficulty falling asleep and/or staying asleep in their own bed.
- Engaging in magical thinking—for example, expressing that they have caused a loved one to become ill with COVID-19 by being mean to their loved one.
Adolescents tend to keep their thoughts and feelings inside when they are feeling stressed. Over time, keeping these negative thoughts and feelings inside can increase their stress and negatively impact how well your adolescent functions.
You may notice your adolescent:
- Withdrawing from friends and family members
- Pushing their boundaries—for example, staying up past their set bedtime, neglecting typical responsibilities, or engaging in risky behaviours
- Directing their frustration at their parents or siblings rather than the situation itself
- Appearing tense
- Spending more time on their electronic devices
- Neglecting personal hygiene
- Becoming overly reliant on their parents or caregivers, or appearing indecisive when completing everyday tasks
How parents can help
- Schedules may look different because children and adolescents are not in school, and parents are working from home. However, maintaining a daily routine reduces uncertainty and allows children and adolescents to maintain a sense of normalcy.
- Set up virtual play dates or other virtual opportunities for your child or adolescent to socialize with their friends.
- Limit access to news, social media, and sources of COVID-19-related information, both for yourself and your family. For adolescents, encourage them to take breaks from the internet and social media.
- Avoid discussions about money and employment in front of children and adolescents, as this can be a source of anxiety.
- Be accessible and ready to listen if your child or adolescent wants to share their thoughts and feelings about COVID-19. Oftentimes, children and adolescents may be looking for validation and reassurance that their feelings are OK.
- Schedule time to play a board game, watch a movie, or enjoy an activity together as a family.
- Engage your child or adolescent in effective strategies for managing stress—for example, mindfulness, deep breathing, or distraction.
- Schedule time each day to play or spend quality time with your child or adolescent. Children learn through playing and often use play to express themselves. Adolescents often learn through social experiences.
- Parents need to remember to take care of themselves! As a parent, it is easy to prioritize your family’s needs instead of your own. When you are feeling worried or overwhelmed, this can increase your child’s or adolescent’s stress. There are many skills or strategies you can try to manage your own stress. For example, taking a break, using relaxation and mindfulness apps, journalling, calling a friend, and taking a shower are all ways to reset and feel more empowered to continue supporting yourself and your family.
© 2020 The Hospital for Sick Children. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from https://www.aboutkidshealth.ca/article?contentid=3867&language=english.
“Is My Child or Adolescent Feeling Stressed About COVID-19?” is from our summer 2020 newsletter, Heart Matters. See our Newsletters page for more stories and to subscribe.