Reading the signals of stress in your child

Picture of a depressed girl.
Feelings of stress are rarely free-floating: They are usually reactions to particular events or circumstances.” —Dr. Lilian G. Katz.

Flying an airplane on a dark, foggy night, how can the pilot see where he is going?

From takeoff to landing, he relies upon signals.

Well over a hundred instruments occupy the panels on the flight deck of a large airplane, each conveying vital information and alerting the pilot to potential problems.

Growing up in our stress-filled world is like flying through a storm.

How can parents foster a smooth flight from infancy to adulthood?

Since many children do not talk about their stresses, parents must learn to read signals.

The body “speaks”

Picture of a thoughtful boy.

A child’s stress is often communicated through the body.

Psychosomatic reactions, including stomach problems, headaches, fatigue, sleep disorders, and problems with elimination, may be signals that something is wrong.

Sharon’s hearing loss was the climax of a period of intense loneliness.

When Amy went to school, her stomach cramps were induced by a fear of being separated from her mother.

John’s constipation resulted from the tension of witnessing violent fighting between his parents.
Sexual molestation had physical consequences for ten-year-old Ashley.

“I remember not going to school for a week [following the rape] because I was sick,” she recalls.

The book When Your Child Has Been Molested explains:

The burden of carrying the molestation can stress the child into being unhealthy.” 

Among the possible physical signals of such trauma are lesions, pain during elimination, recurring stomachaches, headaches, and bone or muscle pains that have no apparent cause.

When illness seems psychosomatic, parents should take the signal seriously.

“Whether the child is faking or not doesn’t matter,” says Dr. Alice S. Honig.

“What’s important is the underlying problem.”

Actions speak louder than words

Picture of a sad girl.

A sudden change in behavior is often a call for help.

The book Giving Sorrow Words notes:

When a good student starts getting F’s, that deserves attention, and the same is true when a child who was previously a troublemaker turns into an angel.”

Seven-year-old Timmy’s sudden pattern of lying began when his mother became totally consumed with her job.

Six-year-old Adam’s sudden rude behavior was rooted in feelings of inadequacy at school.

Seven-year-old Carl’s regression to bed-wetting displayed his craving for parental acceptance, which now seemed diverted toward his younger sister.

Self-destructive behavior is especially disturbing.

Twelve-year-old Sara’s frequent accidents could not be attributed to mere clumsiness.

Since her parents’ divorce, hurting herself was the way she unconsciously used to try to recapture her absent father’s affection.

Whether as simple as minor self-inflicted wounds or as serious as a suicide attempt, aggression turned inward through self-destructive behavior is a signal of intense stress.

A heart that is dominated by negative feelings is usually revealed by what the child says.

“Children who come home saying ‘Nobody likes me’ really are telling you that they don’t like themselves,” says Dr. Loraine Stern.

The same might be true of bragging.

Though seemingly expressing the opposite of low self-esteem, boasting about real or imagined accomplishments may be an effort to overcome deep feelings of inadequacy.

True, all children get sick, occasionally misbehave, and experience periodic disappointment with themselves.

But when such problems form a pattern and no immediate cause is evident, parents should weigh the meaning of the signals.

After examining the patterns of childhood behavior of six teenagers who were the perpetrators of an extremely violent attack, Mary Susan Miller noted:

All the signs were there. The boys had been scrawling them across their lives for years, but no one paid any attention. Adults saw, but they shrugged their shoulders.”

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