By Gina Shaw
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Hansa D. Bhargava, MD
Aug. 17, 2015 -- Children are showing signs of stress as early as grade school, but their parents are not seeing it, suggests a national survey by WebMD.
At the same time, a majority of parents say that personally, they're very stressed.
The WebMD Stress in Children Consumer Survey included 432 parents of children ages 5 to 13. The responses were collected from June 1 to July 31, 2015.
Nearly 1 in 5 parents surveyed rated their own stress levels at a maximum "10 out of 10," and more than half (57%) said their stress was at 7 or higher. But they considered their children to be under very little stress: Nearly half (48%) of parents rated their kids' stress at 4 or below.
"Parents seem to be recognizing their own stress, but they are not necessarily recognizing the link between what's happening in the family and how it's affecting their children," says Sandra Hassink, MD, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics. "A child's stress increases along with family stress."
The survey revealed that 72% of children showed negative behaviors linked to stress more frequently over the past 12 months:
- 43% of parents said their children were arguing more.
- 37% reported increased crying or whining.
- 34% said their children appeared worried and anxious.
Physical symptoms often linked to stress were also common among children in the past 12 months:
- 44% of parents reported that their children complained of headaches.
- 44% reported stomachaches.
- 38% reported nightmares or trouble sleeping.
- 20% said their children decreased appetites or other changes in their eating habits.
And 1 in 5 parents (20%) said that their child had undergone behavioral counseling or therapy.
"Younger children don't talk about being 'stressed' in those terms" Hassink says. "So parents might not be hearing their children articulate that they're under stress, but I wonder if some of it might be coming out in physical and behavioral issues."
Whether parents realize it or not, stress among kids is common.
The stress kids now feel in early childhood continues to mount as kids get older. The American Psychiatric Association's Stress in America survey finds that high school students report stress levels that top those of adults. More than half of all college students (54%) have felt "overwhelming anxiety" sometime within the last 12 months, according to the American College Health Association, up from 48.4% in 2010.
Hassink says she believes stress is the top health problem facing kids today.
"I think childhood today is a much more stressful event than it has been in the past," Hassink says. "As a parent, I felt it. As a pediatrician, I feel it."
Sources of Stress: All in the Family
While about half of parents ranked school/homework (53%) and friends (51%) as the primary sources of their children's stress, a key source of anxiety for children appears to be their environment at home. Many families have been going through tough times, with 60% of parents reporting at least one majorly stressful event affecting their families in the past year.
- 27% had a job loss or financial problems.
- 19% went through serious illness of a family member or friend.
- 21% experienced the death of a family member or friend.
- 9% had a separation or divorce.
- 31% had another emotionally difficult situation.
"Children definitely pick up on and absorb their parents' stress," Hassink says. "What's more, time with parents is a key source of resilience for children, and it's hard to relax and spend time with your family when you have so much on your mind, and stressful events have to be dealt with. Parents need to recognize that their stress levels are affecting not only them, but their children, too."
Bullying is another source of stress for children, and 38% of parents reported that their children had experienced bullying or teasing in the last year. Kids who are bullied seem to be having a particularly hard time at home: 51% of their parents rate their stress levels an 8 or 10.
Families of bullied kids were also more likely to have had a difficult family situation, such as a job loss or serious illness. The bullied children were also more likely to have negative behaviors such as arguing and lying, along with physical complaints such as stomachaches and headaches.
When asked how their kids cope with stress, a majority of parents said primary outlets were video games or TV and movies -- solitary pursuits Hassink says aren't the healthiest way of relieving stress. Sixty-five percent said their children watched TV or movies, and 50% said they played video games.
But kids also used free play (58%), playing with friends (55%), sports or exercise (44%), reading (41%), and art, music, or other creative activities (39%) as stress busters.
Parents may not realize it, but some of their behaviors may be helping their kids learn how to handle stress. Most reported spending time together nearly every day with their kids.
When asked about opportunities to spend time together, parents reported eating family meals together an average of 5.4 times per week, and spending about 4.3 hours of "down time" with their children per week. Down time means spending time with a child that is free of electronics and not task-oriented.
"I don't think we always think about the quality of parent-child time in terms of stress and building resilience, but what really builds resilience for kids is relationships," Hassink says. "The time they spend with a parent or grandparent playing a board game, flying a kite, cooking a favorite meal. These times together, building happy memories, are the moments that most strengthen a child's ability to handle stress."
How to Help Your Child
What if you spot the signs of stress in your child? How can you make things better? Here are a few tips from Carrie Bashoff Spindel, PhD, clinical assistant professor in the department of child and adolescent psychiatry at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York:
- Keep connected. The greatest way to increase resilience in kids is always connection with parents. Make sure you have time every day when you put your phones and your devices away, and you're talking to your kids and your kids are talking to you.
- Take it easy. Families are always running from one thing to another. Make sure your kids get regular unstructured time at home when they can engage in free play, rest, read, or do whatever they feel like doing. It's space where they can pick and choose, it's soothing and fun and stress free. All kids need breaks.
- Maintain healthy routines, like good nutrition and regular bedtimes.
- Ask your pediatrician for guidance and possibly a referral for counseling if your child's stress seems to be persistent and overwhelming, or if they are being bullied.
- Take care of you. Get yourself in check emotionally before you take care of your kids. When you decrease your own stress, you increase your connection to your children.
WebMD Stress in Children Survey
The 432 adults who qualified for and participated in the survey had at least one child under age 18. The survey's margin of error varied from question to question, but overall the survey is accurate to within plus or minus 2.6 percentage points.
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