The childhood stress remains today a study area that needs developing more research, so we still find more questions than answers regarding this phenomenon.
Stress is a widely researched construct among adults, since they present it very frequently.
However, during the last two decades there has been a rise in the presence of this phenomenon among children and adolescents, giving rise to what is known as childhood stress.
In this article I will talk about this problem during childhood and adolescence, defining its characteristics, causes and treatments.
What do we understand by childhood stress?
Therefore, although children usually have less stressful environmental factors than adults, they may also experience stress in certain situations.
Few constructs in mental health and psychopathology have been so important, but at the same time, as difficult to define as stress.
The definitions and conceptualizations of the concept of stress have been multiple over the last few years.
Currently, the predominant stress definitions focus on the environmental conditions or circumstances that pose a threat, challenge and / or exceed or damage the biological or psychological capabilities of the person.
Thus, definitions of stress include an environmental component to which the agency has to act.
However, the environmental factor does not in itself explain the presence of stress, since this is a response made by the individual.
In this way, stress is also considered as a non-specific response of the body to any demand that requires adaptation.
That is to say, stress can originate from any stimulus (whether stressful or not), at the moment in which the person perceives the environmental factor as distressing or unpleasant, and has problems adapting adequately to it.
Ultimately, stress arises from the interaction between stimuli and environmental factors (which may be more distressing or less) and the response of the person to them, which is destined to adapt through the resources it has.
This first approach to the concept of stress is enough to rule out the possibility that only adults can suffer stress.
In fact, today in our society still reigns the idea that stress is mainly caused by environmental factors and stressful stimuli .
We easily understand that a person who works 10 hours a day, has to take care of their children, carry out their university studies and carry out all the tasks of the home, will be easily stressed.
On the other hand, it is harder to understand that a person with little activity, few demands and who has a lot of free time to rest, suffers stress.
However, stress arises from the responses that a person makes about their environmental factors, so it is not the latter that determine their presence or absence, but rather the person’s own adaptation.
In this way, a person with few activities, obligations and responsibilities can be much more stressed than a person with a permanently busy schedule .
Symptoms of childhood stress
The manifestation of stress in children differs from the symptoms suffered by adults for this same problem, due to cognitive, emotional and behavioral differences between adults and children.
Likewise, the stage of development is another important factor when it comes to explaining, since the manifestations of stress that a child of a few years of life performs are different from those of an older child.
In this way, the symptoms of childhood stress are currently divided into two different groups according to the age of the child who suffers.
Stress symptoms in children under 5 years old
Younger children can express their feelings of stress through a state of constant irritability, frequent crying and desire to be always in the arms of their parents to try to mitigate their discomfort.
Likewise, they may suffer nightmares, exaggerated fears, usually to the dark, to animals or to separate from their parents, and modifications in their appetite.
Finally, childhood stress in children of this age can cause difficulties in speech and motivate a regression of behaviors, performing more childish behavior than would be normal for their age as bed wetting or sucking the finger.
Children of these ages are not able to recognize their feelings as a state of stress, so they can manifest their discomfort through different modes of expression.
Stress symptoms in children older than 5 years
Older children can also manifest their stress through a persistent state of irritability or by increasing their episodes of unmotivated crying .
Likewise, as the child grows older, it is common for him to be more aggressive than usual, perform behaviors to attract attention, acquire a negative attitude towards his siblings and complain of physical pain and discomfort.
Although older children or preadolescents may have a greater understanding of what anxiety and stress are, they are not usually able to interpret their sensations as such, and discomfort can lead to different behavioral and emotional alterations.
Causes of childhood stress
As previously discussed in the delimitation of the concept of stress, this may be caused by both external factors and internal factors , and above all, by the interaction between both factors.
In this way, the causes of childhood stress are not far from the stress experienced by adults, since it originates through a poor psychological and personal adaptation to the demands or requirements of the environment.
When we talk about internal factors we refer to those characteristics that are part of the mental and psychological functioning of the child suffering from stress.
Thus, as internal factors that may be involved in the development of stress states we find the personality, thoughts and attitudes of the child.
Thus, when the child needs to face difficult situations, the child may not have the necessary resources to adapt appropriately and respond to them with feelings of stress.
In this way, child stress can be generated by the same child (as happens with adults), according to their way of perceiving themselves and the world around them.
Certain internal characteristics that can make the child more susceptible to stress are anxiety, shyness, desire to please others, fear of failure, fear of punishment, concerns about their physical appearance, doubts about their ability of performance, among others.
As with adults, stress in children appears when their personal resources are unable to adapt adequately to the environment, that is , when external factors exceed the child’s adaptive capacities.
Usually, the external demands to which a child is exposed tend to be less “stressful” than those that may appear in the life of an adult, however, this fact does not guarantee that the child will never suffer stress.
Depending on the internal factors of the child, significant or relevant changes in their daily life may be enough to provoke sensations and states of stress.
Also, as you get older, have responsibilities beyond your capacity, witness family crises, divorces or separations from their parents can also be risk factors for suffering stress.
Other aspects such as death or suffering from a serious illness by a close family member, the birth of a sibling, periods of hospitalization, changes in the school environment or problems with their friends can also expose the child to periods of stress.
Areas of stress in childhood
When addressing childhood stress, in addition to considering the type and nature of stressors, it is important to keep in mind the content in which “stressful” events occur.
When children are younger, stressors are often more related to the family and school context.
On the other hand, during adolescence and pre-adolescence there is greater vulnerability to bodily transformation, changes in relationships with parents and friends, and the beginning of sentimental relationships.
In this sense, we will comment on the three main areas of stress proposed by Maria Victoria Trianes in 2002.
In the literature on childhood stress, a series of events concerning the school environment that may act as stressors have been identified in elementary school students . These are:
Be rejected by equals
Being bothered by children and adults.
Be the last to reach a goal.
Being ridiculed in class
Change school center.
Excess of school demands.
Take home bad grades.
Have conflicts with teachers.
Have concerns about the academic future.
Set goals of success and have sporting demands.
The most stressful family factors that have been detected in the child population are basically:
The birth of a brother.
Conflicts in the relationship with parents.
Death of grandparents or close friends.
serious illness of a member of the family.
Tensions and difficulties that affect parents in the workplace, economic or marital.
Finally, an investigation carried out by McPherson in 2004, stressed that pain and illness can be one of the main sources of stress for children.
Likewise, Jewett and Petterson highlighted hospitalization as the most relevant stressor in children, and chronic illness as a stressor that can affect both the child and his family.
How to prevent stress in childhood
The prevention of childhood stress requires controlling many different aspects that shape the child’s life, and especially those related to the three areas we have just discussed.
In the first place, it is necessary for parents to present themselves as role models for their children, so that they should be able to adequately manage their anxiety states and their periods of stress in front of the child.
If this first requirement is not met, the child can learn to respond to external factors in the same way as their parents, so they will be more vulnerable to stress.
Likewise, positive attitudes such as patience, joy, tranquility, calm and reflective capacity of parents towards their child, help the child to develop similar attitudes to their external factors and allow more resources to avoid stress states.
Another important aspect to prevent childhood stress is to make them participate in the resolution of everyday and family problems, promoting a simple, realistic and optimistic way of facing this type of challenge.
In this way, the child will develop a pattern of behavior governed by acceptance and consistency about the problems.
When a child has begun to suffer stress or is in a situation that can start their condition, it is important to listen to him and assess their opinions.
Although young children should not decide what activities they perform and what they do not do in full, knowing their opinions can be very beneficial to detect possible areas and events that can stress them.
On the other hand, it is important to respect the “rhythm of the child”, avoid making comparisons with his brothers or friends, underestimate his qualities or recriminate his abilities and skills.
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Finally, in this line, parents should avoid that their child believes that he is valued, respected and loved for having a perfect performance in what he does.
This factor can cause a lot of stress in the child, so he should be motivated to work hard and demand the performance he is capable of achieving, but never saturate or base the relationship between father and children in these terms.