STRESS IN CHILDREN
Children and adolescents might feel stressed and anxious owing to fear surrounding COVID-19 and isolation due to social distancing. Parents need to devise methods tailored and customised according to a child’s age and needs to help them overcome this stressful situation.
The COVID-19 situation and ensuing social distancing are gravely affecting children and adolescents as they are forced to stay at home, away from school and friends. Parents are worried about how to manage and nurture the needs of growing kids and how much the current situation is going to affect them, as they are living in almost a hostage like situation, locked in their homes.
Early years of life are significant and providing a stable and nurturing environment is essential as the brain is undergoing rapid development. The social isolation and lack of interaction with their peers in their formative years can lead to a multitude of social and behavioural adversities in children. In order to be safe and keep others safe, we are practicing social distancing, but this means that kids are losing out on very important relationships in their life: their friends and teachers who can help them cope with the stress of this crisis.
Stress disrupts aspects of brain development that regulate emotional and cognitive processes and promote normal social relationships. Adolescents on the other hand are in a crucial developmental stage where they are highly vulnerable to many psychological dysfunctions.
What Is Stress?
Stress is a normal reaction to a difficult situation or a physical danger. The human body releases stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol into the bloodstream, speeding up blood pressure, heart rate, and metabolism. This helps in preparing a person to act quickly under a critical condition. However, when stress continues for a longer period of time, it can produce long term physical and psychological impairment, and this becomes increasingly concerning in case of kids and teens as they are in the formative years and these negative emotions might sow the seeds of future mental disorders like anxiety and depression in them.
Stress In Kids
Kids may not fully comprehend the economic and health impact that COVID-19 is going to have, but they notice that their parents are stressed and get worried themselves. Toddlers and preschoolers cannot express their feelings clearly, but instead exhibit physical symptoms of stress, like abdominal pain, tantrums, and bedwetting. Reactions like this which are different than the kid’s typical conduct indicate that the child has underlying stress.
Parents need to understand and support the emotional needs of the child, as the absence of routines like going to school, serious illness of someone close to them, or stress among parents due to economic crisis can have long term effects on kids and can leave them traumatised. This can have a negative impact on a child’s physical, mental, and emotional growth.
Adults are also stressed and there has been a sudden increase in cases of child abuse and domestic violence, which can severely impact the psychology of children. Parents need to help kids work on this together to turn this stressful situation into an opportunity to grow and connect with family.
Signs Of Stress In Kids
- Body pain, headache, or stomach pain without any apparent reason.
- Excessive crying, aggression, worry or sadness, loss of appetite.
- Increased irritability, tantrums, and cognitive changes like forgetfulness or lack of attention.
- Loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed.
- Increased complaining about schoolwork.
- Developing new or regressive behaviours like thumb sucking or bedwetting.
- Having trouble sleeping or experiencing night terrors.
Stress In Adolescents
The physical response to stress is more severe in teens as they are old enough to understand the severity of the crisis, but not mature enough to handle it or to talk openly about it. The part of the brain that calls off the stress response, the prefrontal cortex is not properly developed in teens and so they react more negatively to stress that can result in lasting ill effects.
Loss of school days, staying away from friends and activities like sports or concerts, can deeply disappoint teens, as these are very important in an adolescent’s life which is marked by rapid physical, cognitive and emotional changes. Don’t measure these events according to your experience and belittle their emotions. Extend your support, empathize, and reassure them that this feeling of sadness is very normal. Teenagers hold friendship and freedom in high regard and staying away from friends can be extremely depressing for them. Adolescents may keep their emotions to themselves and with time, the negative thoughts can increase the stress and manifest as anxiety and depression impacting their mental wellbeing.
Signs Of Stress In Adolescents
- Withdrawing from friends and family.
- Appearing tensed or worried.
- Staying up all night and sleeping during the daytime.
- Lack of energy or concentration and low mood.
- Chronic anxiety and nervousness.
- Increased irritability or anger.
- Experimenting with alcohol or other habit-forming substances.
How To Educate Kids And Adolescents About The Virus
- It is important that we provide opportunities for kids to express their doubts and feelings and make them feel loved and cared for. Parents should have a calm and proactive conversation with kids about the coronavirus and explain how there are effective ways to prevent the disease.
- Listen to your child’s concerns, questions and provide age-appropriate information about the virus with reassurances that their home and loved ones are safe, and even if they do get sick, there are people to take care of them. For adolescents, discuss openly facts from reliable sources and how health care workers are working hard to keep us safe and our responsibilities towards them.
- Ask children about any difficulties they faced in the past and how they overcame the situation and share your experiences while expressing confidence that this pandemic too shall pass. This helps in building a positive outlook on the current crisis.
- Teach kids and teens simple steps about how to wash or sanitize hands, covering mouth while sneezing or coughing, the correct way to use a mask, and avoiding handshakes to keep germs away. You can also educate them using fun games and challenges, with questionnaires about COVID-19.
- Explain to them that they are not meeting their friends and going to school so as to keep them safe, and very soon, all this will end and everything is going to be normal again.
- Educate them about the importance of a healthy diet, exercise, and sound sleep and how this will boost their immunity.
- Talk about how all information they read on the internet and hear on news may not be true.
How To Help Kids And Teens Cope With The Stress Of Covid-19
- Educate children and teens on how they can prevent coronavirus. This gives them a sense of control and eases stress.
- Limit your family’s exposure to news related to coronavirus. Children might misinterpret or hear fake news, which might frighten them.
- Teach progressive muscle relaxation techniques to teens and tell them to focus on things that they can control.
- Break tasks into smaller and achievable goals, and don’t pressurize them. These are tough times and explain to kids that it is ok to be a little easy on themselves. Encourage them to take breaks in between studies.
- Let your child or teen know that it is ok to be upset at times, and everyone feels this way at some point in life. Sit together as a family and talk about your experience of facing stress or anxiety and your ways to cope with it.
- The whole family should have a regular schedule, and kids should try to stick to their school timings while finishing schoolwork or online classes. This gives them a sense of normalcy. Include older children and teens in planning and designing the ‘family time table’.
- Make sure that children wake up and sleep at proper times. Encourage intake of a healthy well-balanced diet, and avoid sugary drinks and junk food.
- Make it a point that kids and teens stay connected to their grandparents, friends, and relatives with phone and video calls. Praise their achievements on a call with your relatives.
- Teachers during online classes can reassure their students that the crisis will end soon. They can suggest creative solutions to manage fear and help them regulate their emotions. Schools can arrange for lunch break for students together on video calls so that kids can catch up with their friends.
- Parents can start including kids while working out, cleaning, and cooking meals. Include a ‘family activity’ once a week, to make things more enjoyable for kids. These act as distractions and prevent kids from feeling upset.
- Talk and plan with your children about what can be done to help less fortunate people amid this crisis and do it. This will help build moral values and empathy in kids.
- Ask about what they plan to do after the pandemic is over. Talk about places they would like to visit, things they would like to do, and career plans in case of teens. This will build their confidence that life will be back to normal soon.
- Limit screen time for kids. For teenage kids, discuss as to how much should be the time limit for using electronic devices.
- Encourage kids to pursue their hobbies and interests and motivate them to learn a new skill. Gift them a journal and ask them to pen down their thoughts and concerns, or prepare a gratitude list on a weekly basis.
- Be accessible to your kids and teens so that they are assured that you are there for them. Spend quality time as a family discussing things you enjoy. Parents should ensure that they take care of themselves as well, as children look up to their parents and if you are feeling overwhelmed, it can increase your child’s stress.
- Find time as a family to indulge in some leisure activities like board games, puzzles, or pretend games.
- If your child or teen is having a tough time, seek professional help.
Dealing Stress In Kids With Special Needs
Parents with children of special needs have the extra responsibility of managing academics along with specialized childcare support like behavioural, occupational, or speech therapy. Parents themselves get stressed by the fact that the child’s progress might reverse or that online teaching methods do not benefit kids as much as the physical presence of a teacher or therapist. The lockdown as a result of the pandemic might impact the emotional development of the child. Children with neuromotor disabilities like cerebral palsy can face more mental health challenges, while those who have intellectual or language disabilities might have difficulty in understanding the situation.
Parents along with the school or healthcare providers need to plan as to what steps can be taken and parents can be given appropriate guidance for the same. Depending on the kind of special needs, developmental and functioning level, parents should communicate and explain the gravity of the current situation and how are you planning to go forward. Stick to regular routines and prepare visual schedule lists and give the child a list of choices so that they can take control. Keep in touch with your child’s health care provider and inform them about any change in behaviour.
How Ayurveda Can Help In Dealing With Stress In Children
Ayurveda has a specialized branch dedicated entirely to the healthy upbringing of children. Parenthood is no easy deal, and Ayurveda recognising this has mentioned Garbhadana sanskara, which mentions how the positive and negative thoughts of parents affect the child while in the womb. Even after birth, we have to provide a stress-free atmosphere full of positive attitude and opportunity for learning for the kids so that their emotional, physical, and psychological growth is not hampered in any way.
The two important steps which Ayurveda follows to tackle stress is to avoid stress-causing situations and to increase endurance towards stress. As in the current situation, avoiding the cause of stress is impossible, we have to focus on steps to improve the resilience and mental strength of children, by means of reassurance and support from parents, along with dietary and lifestyle changes.
- Ayurveda has elaborate discussions on a daily regimen to be followed according to season and health condition, which indicates how important it is to have a proper schedule in your life to attain good health. Having a fixed schedule is very important for the kids to learn in a stress-free environment.
- Make it a habit to give a full body massage to your kids with a suitable oil before bath. This will improve their circulation, calm the mind, and make them feel more energized.
- Teach your kids age-appropriate Yoga, Pranayama, and breathing techniques, which can help them cope with accumulated stress and develop a positive outlook towards life. Doing Yoga together as a family activity is also a good idea.
- Intake of a well-balanced diet according to prakriti or the unique psycho-somatic condition of your child will help improve their overall strength and agni or digestive power. It aids the production of healthy dhathus or tissue and better immunity. The diet should be the blend of six tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, pungent, and astringent, as each taste has a specific function in maintaining the healthy balance in mind, body, and spirit. Include fats like cow’s ghee in the diet of children.
- Give a foot massage or a head massage to your kids once a week with suitable oil. This helps in relaxing the mind while promoting sound sleep.
Emotional wellbeing is essential in raising happy and confident children, and this can only be achieved when they have a strong relationship with family or people who are consistently present with them to develop resilience and acceptance.
“The duty of parents is much more than merely providing basic necessities of life like clothing and food; it is to raise the future generation with apt moral values, social reasoning, empathy for fellow beings, and resilience to the upcoming challenges of life”