Most parents are acutely aware of Singapore’s stressful education system and the rising costs of living. The life of children today is no longer as idyllic as what we recall of our own childhood.
Yet, as parents, it is natural to aspire towards greater things for one’s children. While this may come naturally to an adult who has overcome many stressful life events, it may be presumptuous to expect the same response from a child with limited life experiences, especially during this stressful COVID-19 period.
For an adult, stress is simply a reaction to a stimulus that disturbs our physical or mental equilibrium, triggering a “fight-or-flight” response. A little bit of stress, known as acute stress, can keep us active and alert in the short term. But long-term or chronic stress can have detrimental effects on health.
Children’s coping mechanisms have yet to be developed. As such, poor stress management can escalate chronic stress into depression. In a depressed brain, the parts that scan for danger and respond to it are overly active. Perceiving threat comes easily, which makes withdrawal and isolation behaviours self-protective for a child.
The stressor could be as innocent as a casual fallout with close friends at school or growing apart from classmates due to school closures. To an adult, this event may be temporary and insignificant. But to a child, the stress becomes harmful to health when the event is ongoing or occurs frequently.
Over-activation of the nervous and stress response systems ultimately exhausts the brain and/or body and affects a child’s natural happy and carefree disposition.
For a child, their coping mechanisms have yet to be developed. As such, poor stress management can escalate chronic stress to depression.
Recognise the warning signs of stress in children:
- Trouble sleeping: Difficulties falling asleep or staying awake, changes in sleep patterns or nightmares.
- Regressive behaviours: Return of behaviours that your child has grown out of, like bedwetting, thumb-sucking and baby talk.
- Mood swings: Severe mood swings observed in intensity, frequency and duration in a week.
- Acting out: Aggressive behaviours, tantrums.
- Changes in eating habits: Significant changes, like comfort eating to make themselves feel better, or a lack of appetite in response to stressful situations.
- Aches and pains: Headaches, vomiting, stomach aches and cramps may indicate emotional stress.
- Excessive worrying: Your child worries about school and family so much that it keeps him or her up at night. Insignificant things also seem to cause your child unnecessary anxiety.
- Changes in behaviours: Sudden changes in behaviours, like excessive clinginess and crying, could mean they are struggling with stress.
- Trouble concentrating: Over-thinking, difficulties in completing ordinary tasks, forgetting simple instructions, loss of interest in school work.
- Withdrawal: Reduced or lack of interest in activities that they used to enjoy, pushing away friends and family.
Help your child manage their stress. But parents will need to determine if it is a problem- focused or emotion-focused problem?
A problem-focused problem relates to a current problem that needs to be managed by the child. You can help your child explore strategies to remove or reduce the stressor through problem-solving techniques, time-management skills and improving social support.
An emotion-focused problem is outside the child’s control and best managed by reducing negative emotional responses like embarrassment, fear, anxiety and frustration. Distraction through family and/or mindfulness activities are helpful stress management techniques for emotion-focused problems.
If symptoms persist, seek professional help early so that appropriate therapeutic interventions can be applied to mitigate depression. You can reach out to Tinkle Friend Helpline at 1800 274 4788, every Monday to Friday, from 2.30pm to 7pm.
The contributor is an Executive Director at Clarity Singapore.