How to understand and avoid stress in children

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How to understand and avoid stress in children

To play carefree and discover the world: this is what parents want for their children. Unfortunately, the reality is often different: even children are stressed. We show what helps.

Headaches, exhaustion, angry outbursts: Children often do not know the word “stress” yet. Still, you know what stress feels like.

“It used to be thought that stress only affects adults,” says Thilo Hartmann from the Association of German Psychologists. “Then they found out that young people are also stressed, and then elementary school students came.” We now know that stress is a problem in life.

But it is not always easy for parents to recognize that their children are stressed – and why. Experts provide an overview of stress in children.

How is stress expressed in children?

It is very different. “The symptoms of stress are somewhat less specific in children than in adults and are more difficult to classify,” says Hartmann.

Stressed children often have:


Support in the family: How you can protect children.

Support in the family: How you can protect children.
Photo: Andrea Warnecke/dpa-tmn

  • Headache,
  • Abdominal pains,
  • tachycardia,
  • Sleep disorders.

If children come to Hermann Kahl’s practice with such symptoms, the pediatrician first clarifies whether there are physical causes: “We then usually do a blood test, an abdominal ultrasound or a pediatric cardiology examination.”

But there is often no organic cause for the symptoms, says Kahl from the pediatricians’ professional association.

Parents are often also worried about their children’s behaviour, explains Hartmann, who offers stress management for children and young people in his Berlin practice.

In addition to physical ailments, stress in children can manifest itself in other ways:

  • Some children are sad
  • often throws tantrums
  • are aggressive or in opposition,
  • others withdraw or are sad.

“The way children react to stress also depends on their personality,” explains child psychologist Hartmann.

It is also possible: “The children often feel tense, nervous, uncomfortable and anxious and cannot fall asleep or stay asleep because of worrying thoughts,” says child psychiatrist Ingo Spitczok von Brisinski, who describes the situation.


Solving tasks together: Many children need praise and help.

Solving tasks together: Many children need praise and help.
Photo: Silvia Marks/dpa-tmn

Possible consequences: Children are often

  • exhausted,
  • mood unstable,
  • has crying or tantrums according to the expert from the trade union for child and adolescent psychiatry, psychosomatics and psychotherapy in Germany. A difficult situation for the whole family.

What are the causes of stress in children?

Even in the youngest, stress can have very different causes. The basic rule is: “Everything can trigger stress,” says Hartmann. “You always feel stress when you feel that you are not in control of the situation.”

It leads to helplessness and being overwhelmed – a feeling that many children only know. Because: “Children are not particularly powerful in their world,” explains Hartmann.

What can cause stress in children:

  • No help: “If the parents don’t stand behind their children and don’t treat them with respect, it means stress for the children,” explains Kahl.
  • To talk down problems: If a child is teased by others in kindergarten or at school or does not get along with a teacher, it is stressful enough for the children, according to the paediatrician. If the child then feels that the parents play down concerns – under the motto “Oh, it’s not so crazy” or blame the child, the children become very stressed.
  • Nothing is good enough: Just a two? Why no one? Such a reaction to a school grade signals: You are not good enough, explains Hartmann. This puts children under pressure and gives them stress. “Even if there is potential for development, you should praise the child for his performance.”
  • Forgotten results: Praise is important. This can be transferred to many areas – and starts with young children. Be it the puzzle that doesn’t work so well yet, or the pants that got wet because the child didn’t get to the toilet fast enough. It is worth trying to be recognized.
  • Problems at school: The list of possible causes of stress is long, says Spitczok von Brisinski. For example, a failed exam, conflicts with teachers who cannot do homework, difficult classwork, a bad report, but also bullying or arguments at school can stress children.
  • conflicts: “In addition, arguments with parents, siblings and peers can cause considerable stress,” explains the psychiatrist. “For some children, fearful or unfamiliar situations lead to significant stress.”
  • Too many worries: If parents burden their children with problems and worries that they are still too young for, this means stress for the offspring. Hartmann cites the corona pandemic as an example. Many parents ask themselves: “How much information about Corona can I expect my child to have?”

Parents, of course, want their child to protect themselves and others as best they can, but not walk through the world full of fear. “If you burden the children with too much, you risk that they, as possible carriers of the virus, develop great feelings of fear and guilt for having infected someone,” explains the psychologist.


Arguing can stress children: you should not ignore this.

Arguing can stress children: you should not ignore this.
Photo: Silvia Marks/dpa-tmn

The consequences: “They withdraw, maybe they don’t want to go out at all anymore, or they develop a real compulsion to wash because of constant hygiene warnings,” says Hartmann.

Tip: Parents should communicate the subject in a way that allows children to act in their world. So: “Make it clear to the child that it is important to wash hands, but also that they have done everything they can with it.” The adults have to take care of the rest.

What are the consequences of stress in children?

“It is difficult to accurately assess the consequences of stress in children,” says psychologist Hartmann. “Children go through great changes all the time due to their constant development. The body and brain are constantly being remodeled.”

But even when children are stressed, hormones and neurotransmitters are released that put the body in fight or flight mode. The children go into alarm mode.

According to Hartmann, old age can often compensate for consequences such as high blood pressure or cardiovascular diseases. “But it’s a breeding ground for disease in adulthood.”

One possible consequence of stress in childhood is an increased susceptibility to stress later in life.

But it can also be “that a very high stress tolerance develops, and those affected do not feel their body as strongly in heat, cold or pain.”

one thing is certain: As with adults, prolonged stress damages children. Spitczok von Brisinski warns that even short-term, severe stress can have serious consequences, citing psychological disorders such as depression or adjustment disorders as examples. In extreme cases, dissociative or psychotic disorders can also be thought.

The Robert Koch Institute (RKI) has investigated how many children and young people between the ages of 3 and 17 have mental health problems. The survey on the health of children and young people (KiGGS) shows:


A good counterbalance to stress: enjoy the sun and relax.

A good counterbalance to stress: enjoy the sun and relax.
Photo: Kirsten Neumann/dpa/dpa-tmn

  • in the baseline survey from 2003 to 2006, it was 20 per cent
  • in the survey from 2014 to 2017, it was 16.9 per cent

Now, psychologically noticeable is certainly not to be equated with stress, but the study can be seen as an indication of psychological well-being, says pediatrician Kahl.

What can families do about stress?

Most of the time, smaller children cannot handle the stress on their own. To do this, they need the support of their closest confidants – their parents.

What can you do? 5 tips from the experts:

1. Binding: Pediatrician Kahl focuses primarily on the bond between parents and children. “That is the most important thing for children’s development.” Children need to know that their parents have their backs. “When there are problems, children can see if their parents take them seriously and look for a solution.”

2. Excursions: Kahl recommends joint activities against the stressful everyday life. “Let’s see a movie, go to the theater, treat yourself to something.” Regular exercise is also good. “It relieves stress. At best, an hour of sport a day.”

3. Encouragement: Child psychiatrist Spitczok von Brisinski advises so-called positive self-instruction. Children say short phrases that encourage them. E.g:

  • “Everything goes better after a break.”
  • “Not that bad.”
  • “First make a plan.”

With a little practice, children can handle such difficult situations better.

4. Talk, talk, talk: Psychologist Hartmann recommends the interview – impartially and without accusations. “I notice that you often yell and annoy the cat. How are you?” Parents might say, for example, It can result in an exchange about the reasons – and a solution can be found together.

His tip: Health insurance often covers the cost of stress management programs, which can also help families.

5. Role model: Parents should set an example of calmness and confidence and show their offspring relaxation methods. For example, if you meditate as a mother, you can offer your child to join.

Another option is dream travel: lie down, listen to a story and relax. “It can help when you come down,” says Hartmann. “If you lack movement, relaxation is of course counterproductive. You always have to see: what suits the child?”

Listening to music, needlework, painting, reading or playing sports – this also distracts and the children can relax.

© dpa-infocom, dpa:211104-99-862470/40

(dpa)

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