Parents sometimes view stress as the sole domain of grown-ups, because we associate it with money worries, balancing families and work, and the ups and downs of married life. We might wonder, what do kids have to be stressed about? The truth is, a lot. Childhood stress is very common, especially today.
Your tween's world is full of demands and expectations that can trigger stress. There are the competitive pressures to do well in school; the societal pressures to have the "right" possessions; the peer pressure to fit in and perhaps take uncomfortable risks; and the social pressure to be part of a gang, to avoid being bullied, to look good, and to act older, in terms of independence or sexual awareness, than he may truly feel.
An apparently small thing in any of these areas can easily tip a child from coping into despair. Because children of this age are still learning to give words to feelings, they still tend to communicate distress initially through their behavior. Here are some signs to watch for. Notice whether your child:
- wants to see friends less and spend more time alone
- becomes more dependent or clingy
- loses his appetite or snubs favorite foods
- gets down on himself, especially about his looks or ability
- tries to avoid going to school, using odd excuses or claiming strange pains
- becomes more attention-seeking
How to Help
Children suffering from stress need lots of support. These actions will help you comfort your tween and help her deal:
- Understand your child's feelings and be tolerant of tears. Children have child-size problems and exaggerated fears. It's unfair to dismiss a reaction as an overreaction just because you know the "crisis" will soon blow over.
- Be reassuring about the future. "I can see how hard this is for you, but I'll bet Rob has forgotten about it already." "I know you and your friends will sort this out."
- Keep familiar routines going to provide stability. For example, keep up school attendance, but ask the teacher to be sensitive to any untoward behavior.
- Encourage talk, but don't force anything. Always give permission to refuse. "I wondered if you might be ready to talk about this. Is now a good time?" is a gentle opener to gain trust and attention. Recounting your childhood problems could encourage a wary child to open up. Boys may prefer to talk while busy with something else, rather than face to face.
- Take the pressure off elsewhere. If there are problems at home, forget the grades or big friendship upsets, and sideline tidiness.