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Recognizing Stress Reactions: Why is My Child Acting Differently?

By Beth Land Hecht, LCSW-C

This unique and challenging time of COVID 19, that we are all living through, is clearly stressful. As parents, everything in our lives has been turned upside down. We worry about how this change in our lives impacts our children. The good news is that our kids are more resilient than we think, but they still feel stress.   

 Depending on their age, a child’s stress may look different than it does in adults. Below is a summary compiled from many experts who have studied the impact of stress and trauma in children.  You may or may not be witnessing these behaviors now or you may (or may not) see them in the future. 

Pre-school and elementary school age children who are experiencing stress may:  

  • Become more clingy to parents 
  • Isolate and withdraw themselves from family and friends 
  • Have nightmares, fear of dark, refuse to go to bed, or experience other sleep problems 
  • Become irritable, angry, or disruptive 
  • Be unable to concentrate 
  • Exhibit repetitive play 
  • Show signs of regression 
  • Complain of physical problems such as stomachaches and headaches 
  • Develop unfounded fears  
  • Lose interest in fun activities 
  • Show increased conflict with parent and siblings 
  • Show increased concern for the safety of family members and friends 

Adolescents experiencing stress may show signs of: 

  • Experience sleep and eating disturbances 
  • Exhibit lack of energy and interest in fun activities previously enjoyed 
  • Complain of physical complaints (headaches, stomach aches, nausea) 
  • Exhibit increased conflict with parents and/or teachers 
  • Show signs of withdrawal and decreased interest from peers 
  • Show signs of regression 
  • Become angrier and resentful 
  • Have decreased concentration 

Ideas for helping children when we see these signs of stress: 

  • Use words and concepts that children understand. Make sure your language is age appropriate for your child and ask them to repeat what you just explained. 
  • Give children honest answers. It’s okay to say you do not know.  Do not make things up. 
  • Be prepared to repeat explanations over and over.  This provides consistency and comfort during uncertain times. 
  • Remember that children do not respond to stress in a predictable and orderly way. 
  • Stay flexible. It’s okay to change your mind as a parent. 
  • Validate your child’s concerns. As adults, we are better equipped to manage disappointment and be able to see the big picture. Children and adolescents don’t have that ability.   

Some common tips to help children manage stress: 

  1. Make time for play and participate in play with your kids (have fun together). 
  2. Make sleep a priority. 
  3. Teach your kids to listen to their bodies and to have awareness of what they are feeling physically and emotionally. 
  4. Stay flexible. As a parent, it’s okay to change your mind. 
  5. Prepare your kids to deal with mistakes. It is critical to raising emotionally healthy kids. 
  6. Talk and listen to your kids. 
  7. Create routines such as reading bedtime stories, eating dinner together, or playing games. 
  8. Help children feel in control when possible by letting them make decisions for themselves, such as choosing meals or picking out clothes. 

One of the most important ways to get through this challenging time and to help your child manager their stress, is to do what you need to do to stay healthy in the mind, body and spirit.  

Beth Land Hecht

Beth Land Hecht LCSW-C is the Senior Manager, JCS Community Engagement 

JCS is a comprehensive human services organization providing a broad range of services that meet the diverse, multi-dimensional needs of individuals and families throughout Central Maryland. To learn more, visit jcsbalt.org or call 410-466-9200.  

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