How Stressful Life Events Affect a Child's Behavior

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A parent dreams of an idyllic childhood for their little ones. The reality is, however, is that a child’s life can be just as stressful as an adult’s, depending on the circumstances--but a child isn’t fully equipped to healthfully handle this stress.

Each child reacts differently to stressful events, whether it’s a divorce, family death, difficulty in school or a big move. Your child requires your help to process this stress.

The first step for you, as a parent, is to recognize the warning signs that your child is struggling.

Look for Signs of Stress

Due to the physiological effects on the child’s brain, stress ignites a “fight or flight” response that might be beneficial in the short term--such as preparing for a test--but harmful over long periods of time. Given that your child’s brain is in a period of rapid development, these hormonal responses can be detrimental to learning ability and behavior.

If your normally well-behaved child has suddenly started throwing temper tantrums or getting in trouble at school, it could be a sign that he’s stressed out. Behavioral signs that a child is experiencing stress include anger, detachment, aggressive behavior, crying spells, defiance, and tattling.

There are a number of non-behavioral signs too. Bedwetting, complaints of physical pains like stomach aches or headaches, and academic problems.

Respond to Misbehavior

There’s a delicate line between understanding where your child’s behavior is coming from and excusing him from following the rules. Acknowledge your child’s feelings, but explain that there are healthy ways to deal with uncomfortable emotions. Teach your child appropriate ways to deal with anxiety, frustration, and anger.

In some cases, you might choose to walk away or refuse to engage. But don’t ignore your child’s need for affection. Show your child extra love during this period of stress, even when he’s trying your last nerve.

Reduce Your Child’s Stress

Think about how you diminish stress in your own life: relaxing activities such as bubble baths? Plenty of exercise? A good time with friends? All of these ideas can be applied to children, too.

Help your child cope with stress by encouraging healthy stress relievers. Sometimes, your child might not want to talk to you--but just being in the same room together may be enough to show him that you care. Spending time together is especially important if  the stressful situation is related to a divorce or death.

If stress stems from the anxiety of the unknown--such as moving to a new city or starting at a new school--help your child understand what’s going to happen. Talk about what to expect and prepare your child the best you can, by looking at pictures of the new city or by playing on the playground at a new school ahead of time.

Whether you’re bringing home a new baby or you’re moving to a better neighborhood, positive experiences can be stressful for a child too. Any type of change may seriously disrupt your child’s well-being for a while.

Avoid Too Much Screen Time

You might think that plopping the child in front the TV for a little relaxation is an excellent solution, particularly if your little one often begs for some screen time.

But watching TV or playing video games isn’t actually relaxing. Children respond better to more proactive relaxation techniques--such as exercise or meditation.

When you do allow screen time, be mindful of how some programs may actually stress your child out more. The evening news, for example, is filled with stories of natural disasters and violent crimes. Make sure your child’s screen time only includes age appropriate content.

Seek Professional Help

As a parent, you likely have the skills necessary to address many stress-related issues. However, if you find that it’s simply too much to handle, don’t be afraid to seek professional help.

Whether the source of stress is short- or long-term, a visit to a mental health expert could be just what your child needs to cope and return to his normal, loving self. Sometimes, a few short visits to a professional can ensure your child has the skills he needs to deal with whatever stressful situations you’re facing.

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