Helping Children Conquer Stress: Your Daughter "Knows about Terrorist Attacks and School Shootings. She Talks about It More Than You Are Comfortable with. Is She Becoming the Nervous Type or Is This Simply a Symptom of Stress?"

By Lite, Lori | USA TODAY, March 2005 | Go to article overview

Helping Children Conquer Stress: Your Daughter "Knows about Terrorist Attacks and School Shootings. She Talks about It More Than You Are Comfortable with. Is She Becoming the Nervous Type or Is This Simply a Symptom of Stress?"


Lite, Lori, USA TODAY


YOUR CHILD IS having another meltdown. You were just about to implement your highly developed multitasking skills of starting dinner while cleaning up this morning's breakfast crumbs and arranging car pool for tomorrow. The phone rings and caller ID tells you this is the call you have been waiting for. Your son is sitting at the table crying and screaming for no apparent reason, refusing to do his homework. While ripping the paper to shreds, he announces that he is not going to school tomorrow.

Most of us do not have to imagine this scenario. It hits close to home for many American families. How do you handle it? Do you yell and threaten him; put the boy in time out; secretly wonder if Ritalin would help; bribe him with ice cream; or decide he merely is having a cranky day ... again?

Rather than recognizing the signs of stress in children, many of us are conditioned to think that the youngster is seeking attention, being difficult, on the verge of being sick, or just plain tired. If an adult displayed any of these behaviors, there would be an understanding that he or she has had enough of a demanding, hectic schedule. Adults might declare that they are "stressed out." An adult may realize that what is needed is a vacation, glass of wine, or yoga class. Kids do not have that luxury. We have taught them what a headache and stomachache feel like and shown them how to remedy these symptoms. We point out when they are tired, hungry, or cranky. Yet, how many of us have introduced the words or feelings of being stressed out to youngsters?

Pennsylvania State Children's Hospital/Pediatric Trauma Program lists some of the feelings of the stressed child as being agitated. overactive, contused, afraid, angry, sad, anxious, and withdrawn. Parents are alerted to look for signs that might indicate their offspring is under stress, particularly after a traumatic event. A child's preoccupation with the occurrence, withdrawal from family and friends, sleep disturbances, and physical complaints all can be indicators of Post Traumatic Stress. PTSD is the delayed onset of stress after exposure to a traumatic event. This delayed reaction can last several years. PTSD primarily has been associated with combat soldiers. However, a November, 1999, article in Child Magazine maintains that "the number of children affected is staggering. Every year, at least 3,000,000 youngsters show signs of PTSD."

Tsunami aftermath

Moreover, with the average household television turned on for seven hours a day, it is undeniable that kids have been exposed to unprecedented trauma-inducing images of the recent tsunami. "Helping young people overcome emotional problems in the wake of violence or disaster is one of the most important challenges a parent, teacher, or mental health professional can face," maintains the National Institute of Mental Health. While the global community is assisting youngsters in southern Asia by providing food, medicine, water, and shelter, it is natural to wonder how these survivors will cope and regain physical and psychological well-being.

It is important for parents and educators to identify symptoms of stress. This can be a difficult task. Many of the indicators are the seemingly normal emotions and behaviors families go through on a day-to-day basis. The American Academy of Pediatrics' "Stress and the Child" points out that "Many parents believe that their school-age children are unaware of the stresses around them and are somehow immune to them."

Whether positive or negative, change impacts youngsters. It rates a high score on the Holmes and Rahe scale, a stress measurement tool implemented in 1967 by psychologists Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe. It assigns point values to different life events. The higher the score, the more elevated the level of stress. A child undergoing a change in acceptance by peers is given a life change value of 67. The same child welcoming the birth of a brother or sister is assigned 50 points. …

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