Let’s face it, as parents we want what’s best for our children. After all, even before they’re born, we’ve been taking care of them. For nine months, we’ve eaten or not eaten the foods we should or shouldn’t;  gone to prenatal check-ups; read the latest how-to books; and stocked the house with everything imaginable in the way of equipment, clothes, and toys.

So it’s no wonder that from the moment they finally arrive, we go into action doing everything possible to keep them healthy and happy. But no matter how hard we wish or how hard we try, we can’t protect them from the stresses of everyday life in the 21st century. What we can do is learn more about stress; the causes, the effects, and most important how we can help our children manage it.

What is stress?

It’s important to understand that stress is neutral. It’s our perception of the event that determines how we respond. What’s stressful for one child won’t faze another. It’s also why parents shouldn’t discount any of a child’s concerns about an event or situation, even if we know he’s overreacting. Who of us doesn’t remember thinking that if we didn’t make the team or get accepted to our first choice for college, we were headed for a life of misery and failure.

Surprisingly, in many situations stress can be a positive force. As a matter of fact, we’re genetically programed to go into action when we experience stress. When we sense a challenge or danger, the body activates the higher thinking centers of the brain. Positive responses to stress give us the energy to handle emergencies, meet challenges, create, and succeed. Just think of those times you pulled all-nighters to complete an assignment on time.

Stress can also be extremely negative when we feel overwhelmed, panicked, with little or no control of over a situation. These feelings also activate the brain and body but in ways that can cause long lasting damage to both physical and mental well-being.

What causes stress in children?

Children are experiencing more stress at younger and younger ages, says Victoria Tennant M. Ed., an independent educational consultant.

She said young children may experience stress from:

  • disrupted homes, blended families, both parents working outside the home
  • increased exposure to violence, both real and on the screen
  • excessive screen time
  • being over scheduled
  • feeling pressured to perform or behave beyond their ability

For teens, the list grows even longer:

  • judgment or evaluation by others
  • unrealistic classroom demands
  • the future
  • dealing with their changing bodies and sexual feelings
  • problems with peers
  • any situation that threatens self-esteem
  • disagreements with teachers, parents or other adults

What are the signs your child is experiencing stress?

Be on the lookout for:

Physical symptoms

  • decreased appetite, other changes in eating habits
  • headache
  • new or recurrent bedwetting
  • sleep disturbances
  • stuttering
  • upset stomach or vague stomach pain
  • other physical symptoms with no physical illness

Emotional or behavioral symptoms

  • anxiety
  • inability to relax
  • new or recurring fears
  • clinging, unwilling to let you out of sight
  • anger
  • inability to control emotions
  • aggressive behavior or stubborn behavior
  • unwillingness to participate in family or school activities

What you can do

The number one thing a parent can do to help a child manage daily stress is communicate. Open the conversation, then step back and let your child do most of the talking. You’ll be tempted to jump in with advice and quick solutions, but just try to listen. Really listen. You’ll be surprised how much you learn if you just give them a chance to voice their fears and concerns in a safe loving environment. And whatever you do, don’t make value judgments or dismiss their concerns as minor. Respect their feelings and validate their right to them.

Your job is to pay careful attention to what they’re expressing both verbally and non-verbally. To fully appreciate the depths of their stress and decide the best course of action, whether it means working together to find solutions or seeking outside professional help.

Most important and probably the most difficult is being a positive role-model when dealing with your own stresses. Show them with your actions, not just your words, that stress is an ever present part of life that can be successfully managed. Teach them by your example and they’ll learn lessons that will serve them for the rest of their lives.