Children and Stress: The Eﬀects of Stress on Children
Excerpted from Children and Stress: A handbook for parents, teachers, and therapists
By Marty Loy, PhD
A child’s age, personality, and coping skills aﬀect how he or she will deal with stress and react to it. The type of stress, its duration, and its intensity will determine how taxing it is. Support from family and friends and, in some instances, teachers and professional counselors can—if available in suﬃcient amount and quality—enhance skills and help the child gain perspective. Some research suggests that stress in children has a synergistic rather than a cumulative eﬀect, multiplying the negative eﬀects of stress by as much as four times with each added stressor present in a child’s life.
Children and Stress: Short-term eﬀects
One of the ﬁrst indicators of stress in children is changes in behavior. Such changes may include anger, backtalk, ﬁghting, hitting, bullying, teasing, and increased hostility toward siblings, family, or peers. Parents and teachers may notice communication problems, decreased concentration, compulsiveness, depression or general sadness, withdrawal, friendship problems, or resistance toward school attendance.
Stress can show immediate eﬀects through a wide range of emotions. Some children become easily tearful, whiny, anxious, demanding, distrustful, fearful, and nervous. Some have mood swings or express feelings of being lonely or unloved. Physical symptoms may include complaints of upset stomach, headache, or sore throat. Episodes of vomiting, loss of appetite, or a frequent need to urinate may be observed. A variety of unusual physical behaviors such as ﬁdgeting, stuttering, tremors, or shaking legs may arise from stress. Colds and other viral illnesses can be a sign of a stress weakened immune system.
When under stress, some older children revert to behaviors characteristic of younger children, such as baby talk, thumb-sucking, nose-picking, or wetting clothing. Stressed children may bite their nails or bite, twirl, pull or suck their hair. Parents should also be aware of changes in sleep behaviors such as insomnia, extended sleep periods, fear of the dark, bad dreams, or bed wetting; or changes in eating patterns such as increased or decreased consumption of food or an increased interest in junk food.
Overt signs of stress are also common and are sometimes described as “calls for help.” Examples include self-induced sickness or threats of suicide. Those aﬀected with the good little girl syndrome do everything they are asked; on the opposite extreme, rebels may break all the rules or take part in high-risk behaviors, such as the use of drugs or alcohol, shoplifting, or skipping school.
Speciﬁc reactions are highly individual to the child. One might get a stomachache and cry, while another might become irritable and angry. Stress symptoms in some children happen immediately after the stressful event, while in others reactions may not show up for several days. Some children communicate their thoughts and feelings readily, while others have diﬃculty naming their feelings. They may use general terms or vague statements, such as “I’m worried,” or “I have butterﬂies in my stomach.” Some—typically younger children—may show anger only brieﬂy while others—usually older—demonstrate longer-lasting eﬀects, holding on to their feelings of anger, disillusionment, distrust, and low self-esteem for weeks, months, or even years.
Children and Stress: Long-term Eﬀects
Recent research on childhood stress has contributed to a growing understanding of the long-term physical and emotional consequences of mismanaged stress. Stress can impair a child’s self-image, self-conﬁdence, self-esteem, academic performance, and social skills. Stress also plays a role in a child’s tolerance and self-control. Childhood stress can increase long-term social anxiety and insecurity; it can contribute to substance abuse, suicidal ideation, and suicide.
Unidentiﬁed and untreated stress in children contributes to physical problems ranging from lowered immune function and migraine headaches to obesity, type II diabetes, respiratory-tract illness, asthma, and several psychiatric disorders, including depression, anxiety, chronic post-traumatic stress disorder, and developmental delays both physical and emotional.
Some evidence suggests that many long-term consequences persist well into adulthood. They may manifest themselves in a range of adult emotional and physical problems such as insecurity, low self-conﬁdence, social anxieties, poor self-esteem, substance abuse, and depression. Stress may inﬂuence everything from physical health and memory to social competence, marital success, and academic and socioeconomic attainment.
Children can appear outwardly resilient to the immediate eﬀects of stress but, if the timing of the stress is during a critical period of personality development, they can carry the long-term eﬀects with them for the rest of their lives. Many studies link trauma and chronic stress with poor physical and mental health over the long-term.
Marty Loy PhD: Dr. Loy is professor of Health Promotion and is the Dean of Professional Studies at the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point. He teaches and publishes in the areas of stress management, learning, and childhood grief and loss. Marty won the University Excellence in Teaching Award in 2001. He currently serves as the President for the Board of Directors of the National Wellness Institute.
Marty and his wife, Becky Loy, founded Camp Hope, a camp for grieving children in 1986. Becky is the president and camp director. Camp Hope has served as a model for similar camps nationally. The Loys were one of three national recipients of the 2007 Champions of Children Award sponsored by Johnson & Johnson in recognition of their work with grieving children. Learn more about Camp Hope at www.camphopeforkids.org.
Marty, originally from Spring Green, earned his doctorate in education administration from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a master’s in education counseling from UW-Oshkosh, and a bachelor’s from UW-Madison.