While we have accepted that stress is a part of adult life since long ago, stress in childhood is usually mentioned when it is necessary to point out difficult experiences children are exposed to, e.g. in a crisis. Adults often think that experiences children are exposed to are not so important. However, during their growth, children and youth are exposed to various stressors: injuries, difficult separations, losses, disturbing events in the family and at school and other things.
Nowadays children probably experience more stressful situations than before and we can say that stress is a part of growing up. The problem arises from the situations when the child experiences a more intensive anxiety and when it happens frequently. This necessitates the understanding of the stress influence, child’s reactions and coping in order to provide adequate support appropriate to child’s needs.
The state of stress, in both children and adults, is recognised due to emotional reactions (sadness, anxiety, panic, mood changes, anger…), thinking processes (self-criticism, poor concentration, forgetfulness, recurring thoughts…), physical reactions (palms sweating, palpitation, blushing, stomach ache, headache…) as well as the behaviour of an individual (crying, slamming, aggression, uncontrolled outbursts, withdrawal…)
Examples of stressful events in childhood:
· residing out of home
· fear of teachers’ punishment
· worries about friends’ company
· worries about school work
· fear of not being accepted in the group deemed important
· fear of being different from others
· worries due to bodily changes connected with growing up
· parents’ divorce
· moving into another city
Consequences of stress can be alleviated by other factors in a child’s life. Children who have developed good family relations with one or both parents, who have the experience of being successful at school and maintain friendly relations with their peers are less likely to develop psychological problems. Development of good relations with others generally protects against stressful situations.
Factors helping children in stressful situations:
o healthy relationship with at least one parent or adult
o developed social skills
o developed problem solving skills
o capability of independent functioning
o ability of using at least one strategy of coping
o feeling of self-respect and personal responsibility
o ability of attention focusing
o developed interests and hobbies
Children can be supported in stress management in the family and at school. Best support to a child are listening parents and friends whom the child can talk with. These help the child think the problem out and look for a solution.
How adults can help a child under stress:
· Pay attention to the child – in various situations, especially when the child is arguing with friends, night wetting or showing poor attention.
· Encourage the child – try to be positive and show the child that you care.
· Admit your feelings – it is important that the child knows it is all right to feel angry, scared or lonely.
· Name child’s feelings and help the child talk about them.
· Help the child see the situation in positive terms – some stressors make the child feel ashamed and the shame affects self-confidence.
· Organise activities which assist cooperation instead of competition – it helps the child to participate at her/his own rhythm and stimulates the development of social skills.
· Encourage the involvement of parents, family members and friends in activities like reading together, supporting openness and mutual listening.
· Ensure regular communication in a safe environment – family members, a group, or the class. In pleasant situations, children like to share feelings, experience, fears… In that way, adults can understand strategies the child uses and utilise that understanding in helping children.
· Organise various physical and sports activities.
· Develop healthy nutritional habits in the child.
· Instruct the child about ways of relaxation.
· Teach the child that making mistakes is normal and that mistakes are a part of learning.
· Create rules for various situations in the family and in the class, together with the child. Define the consequences together.
· Talk with the child about how to handle difficult situations, talk about what s/he might be able to do, ask the child for opinion.
· Tell and read stories about coping with stress.
Although children in certain phases of their development may have similar reactions to disturbing events, do not forget that, on the other hand, children may not react similarly. Caring of children, it is especially important to take care of those who have had more stressful events on their way to adulthood, or who even have experienced traumatic events. Child’s individual characteristics should be taken into account, the support received, as well as adverse factors making her/him more vulnerable to stress.
Stress at school
Consideration of stressful situations a child experiences at school should take into account the totality of circumstances and their impact on the child.
* physical circumstances – size and quality of the premises where children are, temperature, noise and if it is crowded there
* teachers’ personality and behaviour – if they respect individual differences of children, support the feeling of belonging, trust and safety, the emotional atmosphere…
* environmental stress – if uncertainty and suspense is frequent, if there is a possibility of injury, bullying, how problems are solved, if there is a defined protocol of handling crisis situations.
It is important that school staff take care of their psychical health and problem solving readiness because it can influence children’s lives. Teachers who participate in preventive programs at school have lower absenteeism, their approach to teaching is improved, they feel empowered, take better care of their personal health and satisfaction. Also, in that way they make a more positive model for children and their parents. Care of teachers’ mental and physical health includes knowledge about relaxation techniques, nutrition, communication skills etc.
Stress prevention in schools
Findings about stress in childhood and its influence on later life justify the introduction of preventive programs in schools. The existing programs of stress prevention in literature most frequently recommend:
1. acquiring coping strategies
2. focusing on the importance of mental and emotional health in preventive programs
3. creating good physical education programs
4. inclusion of stress prevention programs in other school subjects (literature, social sciences, natural sciences, arts)
5. professional staffing of schools and availability of professionals to children and parents (possibility of psychological counselling, family support, health care, the importance of healthy nutrition, etc.)