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What are the signs of a stressed-out, anxious kid? Often, a kid doesn’t say, “I’m stressed,” so you have to figure out what’s going on with them. Younger children might be clingy and need constant reassurance. Other kids might say they have belly pain, headaches, or just sort of a nonspecific discomfort of “not feeling good.” Like adults, middle schoolers and teenagers might have problems with sleeping, eating too much, or not eating enough. You might notice poor school performance, or again, like adults, they might blow up when asked about something that is stressing them out.
Are there any times of the year that kids are often more stressed? Kids tend to be more stressed at the beginning and ending of the school year, as they anticipate upcoming transitions such as graduation. However, I would say that for many children an important component of the stress is more related to their social life and family—divorce, new sibling, arguments, et cetera—than to school. Granted, school is an additional stressor, but kids can be stressed at any time of year.
What can parents do to help prevent or reduce stress? Scheduling downtime will help. Spend time doing low-key activities together such as playing a game or just having a relaxed dinner. Kids learn how to respond to stress from what they see. Remember that in many ways, your child is a mirror of you. Be the person you want your child to be. And every day, have a little conversation, rather than waiting until you notice stress to ask what’s going on.
What is a great starter question to get those conversations going? The more open-ended the better: How are things going with school? How are things going with your friends? Some children may require more targeted questions to get them to answer. In that case, hypothetical questions can be helpful, such as: What do you do when you’re worried about a test? What do you do when other kids at school are giving you a hard time? These seem less confrontational and direct, and so kids might not get as defensive. There are some times when you will need to be even more direct, and if that is the case, you will want to couch any questions with encouragement, such as, “Your mom and I really care about you and wanted to check in to make sure you’re all right. I heard that you had an argument with ____. How are you feeling?" Those more direct conversations go well with taking a child out for ice cream or something else that makes them feel special. Making special time for your child is always a good idea and helps with all sorts of awkward conversations, including during adolescence.
What’s more important in a child’s development: a schedule full of activities, or unstructured time? Both and neither. Kids and adults alike need a balance. There are benefits on both ends: Childhood—all ages, including teenage years—is about learning to engage with your environment and other people, so activities can help with that. But another part of growing up is learning to create something out of nothing and deciding on your own what you’re going to do next. A child’s life should include both structure and choice, and that balance is specific to each child.
Dr. Joshua Arthur is a SLUCare pediatrician at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children's Hospital.