Since many children do not talk about their stresses, parents must learn to read signals.
• 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.
When illness seems psychosomatic, parents should take the signal seriously. “Whether the child is faking or not doesn’t matter,” says an expert. “What’s important is the underlying problem.”
• A sudden change in behavior is often a call for help. Self-destructive behavior is especially disturbing. 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 a psychiatrist. The same is 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 signal.
Now more than ever, parents must be alert to recognize the signs of childhood stress and act on them.
Most parents misjudge the dimensions of a child’s stress. The following are some causes of children’s stress:
1. Parental Death can create feelings of Guilt
Recalling momentary angry thoughts toward a parent, a child may harbor concealed feelings of responsibility.
2. Divorce can create feelings of Abandonment
A child’s logic says that if parents can stop loving each other, they may also stop loving him.
3. Alcoholism can create feelings of Tension
One well-known psychologist writes: “The daily environment of fear, abandonment, denial, inconsistency, and real or potential violence fostered in the alcoholic home is hardly a functional, healthy environment.”
4. Parental Fighting can create feelings of Fear
A study of 24 students revealed parental fights to be so stressful that bouts of vomiting, nervous facial tics, loss of hair, weight loss or gain, and even an ulcer were the consequences.
5. Overachievement can create feelings of Frustration.
“Wherever children turn,” writes one expert, “they seem to be running for their lives in races lined up for them by adults.” Pressured to be the best at school, at home, and even at play, the child never wins, and the race never ends.
6. Newborn can create feelings of Loss
Now having to share parental attention, a child may feel that he has lost a parent rather than gained a sibling.
7. School can create feelings of Separation and Anxiety
For Amy, leaving her mother and going to school was like suffering a little death each day.
8. Mistakes can create feelings of Humiliation
With their shaky self-image, children “tend to blow some things up out of all proportion,” says one child therapist, she found, was one of the most common triggers of child suicide.
9. Disabilities can create feelings of Frustration
Besides the ridicule of uncompassionate peers, the physically or mentally disabled child may have to bear the impatience of teachers and family members who express disappointment over what is simply beyond his ability.