March 2023

Are Your Kids Being Affected By Your Stress?

No one is immune to stress, whether you're an adult or a young child. Stress creeps into our lives in so many ways, some of which we can't really control. This is often the case when one person's stress rubs off on someone else. While it would be easy enough to separate yourself from the person who is stressed out to stop it from affecting you, kids can't do this when it's their parents' stress that's getting to them. 

In a recent study, researchers investigated the connection between parenting stress and child behavior. Studying more than 200 children ages 3 to 9 and at different stages of development, their results supposed the fact that parental stress can, in fact, lead to behavioral problems in children. 

These results might not be shocking to you. But when thinking about your household, habits that are transferring your stress onto your kids may be hard for you to recognize right away. So how can you tell if your kids are being affected by your stress?

Signs of Stress in Children

Significant changes, like their parents' separation or divorce, can leave kids experiencing stress that is hard to overcome. You and your co-parent are the ones going through the divorce, yet in reality, your kids are right there with you experiencing it all in their own way.

Stress in children manifests itself in a number of ways, depending on their age and level of development. Young children may have a hard time staying asleep, wet the bed, cry frequently, or become clingy with one or both of their parents. Signs of stress in older children may appear differently such as in headaches, stomachaches, feelings of loneliness, and difficulty concentrating.

Stress affects every person differently, so while you should take these signs into account, always remember who your child is when they are at their best. If something feels off about their personality, stress could be getting to them. 

Stress Spreads From Person to Person

Taking measures to prevent unnecessary stress is crucial. You won't always be able to stop stress from affecting your kids altogether, but you can have some control over the amount of your stress that spreads onto them.

Maybe you've experienced it before: when you're with a friend who is stressed out, their expressions and mannerisms during that time can create feelings of anxiety in you. In this case, it may be easy to remove yourself from the situation by saying goodbye to your friend, for now, knowing that you'll reunite later. 

When stress spreads throughout your own home, it can be harder to escape its contagious effects, such as is the case with children and parents. Kids might escape to their bedroom for some time, but that's not very far away from the stress that is affecting others in the home. 

Reduce Your Stress, Lower Your Child's Stress

As a parent, taking measures to uphold your child's wellbeing is essential. Working to reduce stress in your household overall is a critical step in promoting your child's health. In doing so, you must consider how you can reduce your own stress that is likely rubbing off on your child.

A separation or divorce can create stress that is hard to overcome, yet it's not impossible to do so. Think about what you can do to improve your situation. If conflict or lack of clarity in your co-parenting has affected your stress levels, take measures to improve your communication. Poor communication can often be a source of conflict, so making an effort to always communicate clearly and concisely can lead to more effective exchanges with your co-parent.

If you feel like your social life is off track, work to reclaim it. This will help to create an outlet for you of friends that you can vent to when you feel stressed and also enjoy some fun, stress-free moments outside of your home. 

As you work to lower your own stress levels, you will hopefully notice a change in your child's personality for the better. Even so, keep an eye on how they are doing. Try to engage your child in conversations about how they are feeling. Encourage them to keep up with things they enjoy such as afterschool activities or spending time with trusted friends. 

If you notice that your child can't seem to shake their stress, consider speaking with a family coach, counselor, or a therapist. It's possible that both you and your child could benefit from speaking to an expert who can offer guidance to help lower your stress levels. Don't hesitate to get yourself and your child the support you could use to reduce stress in your lives.

Because children are affected by their parents' stress, it's important for parents to do what they can to reduce their own stress in order to also reduce stress in their child. Understanding the signs of stress in kids of different ages and utilizing healthy strategies for minimizing these effects will help your child, as well as yourself, move forward with more success.



Stressed out kids? Signs and strategies

Life is full of unpredictable changes. Some can be exciting and motivating, while others can lead to increased stress, poor health and anxious feelings.

Stress is an automatic physical, mental and emotional response to challenging events. It's a normal part of everyone's life, including the lives of children.

Like adults, kids face countless new and potentially stressful situations each day. Children, especially teenagers, aren't likely to ask their parents to help them manage their stress. Sometimes, they don't even recognize that they are feeling stressed out.

As a caregiver, you might notice something is off before they do. Helping your children manage their stress can lead to more balanced and healthier lives.

Signs of stress in children

Children aren't miniature adults, and they may express stress in different ways than you might expect.

Here are a few signs that your children may be stressed out or could use some extra support:

  • Emotional outbursts or increased irritability
    Stress leads to stronger feelings of anger and irritability. Your children may have emotional outbursts that are inconsistent with their previous behavior or the current situation.
  • Trouble sleeping
    Worries and fears seem to come out during bedtime. Children who are stressed may have trouble falling or staying asleep, or start having nightmares.
  • Withdrawing from others
    Children who are stressed may want to spend more time alone and not interact with friends or family.
  • Struggles with school
    Significant changes in your children's school performance can be a sign of stress. Stress makes it harder for children to focus during the school day or when doing homework. Emotional outbursts and anger at school can cause trouble with friends and classmates.
  • Frequent headaches or stomachaches
    When children are stressed or anxious, their bodies release the hormone cortisol into the blood. This can trigger abdominal cramps and headaches.
  • Increased defiance
    Children under stress may feel angry or overwhelmed. They are seeking ways to get out of the situation that is causing them to feel uncomfortable. This can lead to defiant and stubborn behaviors.

Remember that children's signs of stress can vary based on age, personality and coping skills. The key is to watch for drastic or sudden changes from your children's previous behaviors.

Managing defiance

Usually, children don't have a lot of power or control in their lives. They are told when to eat, when to sleep, how to act, what is appropriate to wear, what is appropriate to say and what they should learn. The list goes on.. Children know how to get a reaction out of and manipulate their parents. And sometimes saying no is the only control they feel they have that day.

Sometimes there is a purpose for their misbehavior, such as to gain attention or get something they want. Other times, they might just be on autopilot because they are exhausted and their brains simply aren't able to regulate their emotions or actions anymore. They are exposed to different experiences throughout the day that parents might not even know about.

Their brains are not developed until they are about 25 years old, and they might just not know how to process the day's experiences. Because of this, children's ability to respond relationally differs from adults, and they tend to respond emotionally and impulsively.

As a parent or caregiver, it can feel exhausting when your children act defiantly.

Here are a few tips for managing children's defiant behaviors:

  • Set expectations.
    Children thrive on routines and set expectations. Outline examples of behaviors you will and will not tolerate. When correcting children, tell them what you want them to do rather than what not to do. For example, instead of saying, "Stop chewing with your mouth open," try saying, "Please chew with your mouth closed."
  • Act, don't react.
    When children act defiant, the instinct to react is human. The expression of emotion also is human. Take a deep breath and calmly correct behavior. Don't mirror their anger level. Maintain calm and set clear expectations. Maintain consistency. For example, don't say yes to something just because you want the behavior to end. Rather, validate their emotion and  follow through with your set expectation. Remind yourself that your children are impressionable, and your words matter. They need to know it's OK to express their emotions respectfully.
  • Pick your battles.
    If their behavior is simply irritating but not dangerous or illegal, try to ignore it. The moment they do something positive, complement them. Sometimes children simply want a reaction, so try to react to the positive behaviors instead of the negative.
  • Focus on two or three behaviors only.
    Children may feel overwhelmed or inadequate if you try to correct every concerning behavior. A focused approach will get better and quicker results in improved behaviors.

Coping with stress

While all stress cannot be eliminated, you can prevent excess stress from affecting your children's lives by:

  • Establishing and keeping routines
    With many simultaneous changes, children need to be able to count on something that's going to be the same most of the time. That's why routines are so important. If your family wasn't routine-orientated before, now is a good time to implement daily routines to provide structure and support. You could start a new bedtime habit or strive to have supper together a few nights a week to provide consistency at home for your children.
  • Finding times to talk
    Children tend to have a difficult time starting a difficult or uncomfortable conversation. Find times to talk to your children when you are doing something together. This could include when you are making meals. Invite them to join you in the kitchen. Find time to sit at the table to eat together. If you are driving somewhere, that is also a good time. Children tend to share more when they do not have to look straight at you or feel pressured to talk about their feelings or experiences.
  • Encouraging a return to previous activities
    During the pandemic, many children's activities were delayed or canceled. After going a long time with little social contact, some kids have anxiety about returning to activities they previously enjoyed. Depending on your local health recommendations, encourage your children to try a new or previous favorite activity or sport again. If your children resist, set a timeline to reevaluate their feelings. For example, ask your children to try the activity for two weeks before making any final decision. It's good for them, and most will find they enjoy it once they get going again.
  • Allowing choices
    Children have few choices. Allow them to have some choices when appropriate. This might include what to eat for supper, what to watch on TV, what game to play and so on.
  • Finding humor in daily life
    A good laugh doesn't just lighten a mood, it also activates and relieves the body's stress response. Find ways to laugh with your kids by watching comedies, reading comics or jokes, playing games, and helping each other find the humor in daily life.
  • Playing as a family
    Get physically active with your kids and find ways to play as a family. Put on music and dance in the kitchen, go for a bike ride after dinner, or play games as a family. These activities can reduce how stress affects you and your children.
  • Encouraging healthy diet and sleep habits
    Tired or hungry kids are rarely happy. Make sure that your children's diet includes a mix of fruits and vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins to keep them full and focused. A lack of sleep can trigger overreaction or emotional outbursts, so follow a bedtime routine to make sure your children get enough sleep each night. Encourage good sleeping habits of shutting of the TV, turning off the phones and putting away electronics. Allow time to transition from the activity of the day to becoming ready for bed. The body naturally creates melatonin, but the body needs to know that it is nighttime. Try dimming the lights and having them do something that does not stimulate their mind. This could include reading a book, writing in a journal or doing something that does not have a light on it.
  • Practicing deep breathing together
    Deep breathing is a great way to reduce stress levels. Help your children practice by taking deep breaths in for a count of five seconds, hold for two seconds and release to a count of five seconds. 
  • Enlisting help of children's teachers
    Take the opportunity to check in with teachers and ask how your children are doing, if they are making friends, or if the teacher is noticing any problems between your children and other students. Often, children won't tell their parents about issues they have at school, as they may feel embarrassed. Sometimes parents are surprised to learn their children are being bullied at school. Teachers and school staff can be your eyes and ears when your children are not with you.
  • Managing your mental health
    It's hard to be an effective parent if you struggle with your mental health. Take steps to keep burnout and stress at bay in your life.


When My Worries Get Too Big: A Relaxation Book for Children Who Live with Anxiety (The Incredible 5-Point Scale)

By Kari Dunn Buron

Anxiety is the leading childhood mental health diagnosis.
This book teaches young children about their anxiety (worries) and how to relax their bodies. The book is filled with wonderfully goofy illustrations that communicate how to recognize stress and moods before they spin out of control.

The direct teaching approach puts the power in the hands of the children themselves. The book also includes a wealth of information for parents, therapists and teachers about how to put the story and other calming exercises into practice.
  Paperback $18.99 Amazon




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