As adults, we’re all too familiar with the stresses of everyday life.
But what about the next generation? Are we in touch with the worries the children in our lives face today?
Two Spectrum Health experts—who hear first-hand from kids and teens every day—are here to help: Dora Hillman, DO, a child psychiatrist with Spectrum Health Medical Group, and Lisa Lowery, MD, an adolescent medicine subspecialist at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.
“Kids can manifest stress differently than adults,” Dr. Hillman said. “Anxiety in children can masquerade as irritability, low tolerance of frustration, complaints such as stomachaches, headaches and nausea, and school avoidance.”
Any of those things should signal parents and caregivers to ask some questions—and maybe even seek input from a professional.
Keeping the lines of communication open is key, although not always easy.
“It’s not a one-time conversation, but keeping the conversation ongoing,” Dr. Lowery said.
Dr. Lowery said every child should have some adult with whom they feel they can talk openly.
“When I am talking with kids, one of the things I always ask them is, ‘Who do you have that you can talk to?’” she said. “An older sibling? A parent? An aunt or uncle? A teacher? A counselor? Someone who’s not just in their friend group.”
Parents complain their teens don’t talk with them, she said.
“I remind parents to look back to their teenage self. ‘How much did you really talk to your parents?’” she asks them.
Dr. Lowery said being a parent is often a process of “being there and checking in… Don’t worry if they’re not always long, meaningful conversations. Sometimes it’s enough to just let them know you’re there for them and that they can come to you.”
Drs. Lowery and Hillman also warn parents to stay alert to signs their children might need to see a professional. Red flags include withdrawing from family and friends, declining grades in school, quitting something they have enjoyed in the past, or marked behavior or personality changes.
“You might need to further investigate and get more support if needed,” Dr. Hillman said.
The 5 most common stressors in kids and teens:
1. They’re too busy.
Over-filled schedules cause challenges for many kids. While extracurricular activities like music, clubs and sports can be great, they should align closely with your child’s interests—and not crowd out time for relaxing and spending time with family.
“It is very important for children to have at least an hour or two to decompress after returning home at the end of school or an extracurricular activity,” Dr. Hillman said.
It’s tempting for parents to push their kids straight to homework when they get home, but this is when they are likely emotionally and physically exhausted—and they really just need some down time.
Being too busy also can lead to kids not getting enough sleep.
“Many children are sleep deprived, which decreases their resiliency to handle stressors, and leads to detrimental effects on mood, focus and judgment,” she said. “Overly extended schedules, lengthy homework and access to electronics in the bedroom can whittle away at sleep.”
Keep in mind these optimum sleep time guidelines from the National Sleep Foundation: school-age children up to age 13 should be getting between nine and 11 hours of sleep, and teenagers 14 to 17 should be getting eight to 10 hours.
Dr. Hillman suggested establishing a consistent sleep schedule, staying physically active and removing kids’ access to electronics at least one hour before bedtime.
2. There’s conflict at home.
While every family has episodes of conflict, parents should try to make sure it’s peaceful at home as much as possible, Dr. Hillman said.
“Children absorb the energy of the household,” she said. “Children from homes with high conflict are more likely to suffer from anxiety, depression and behavioral issues at school.”
She suggested keeping adult conversations private and making sure there are ground rules for showing all family members respect and patience.
3. They feel academic pressure.
Whether it’s academic grades or achievement test scores, too much focus on performing well academically creates a lot of stress for kids, Dr. Hillman said.
She encourages parents to focus on behaviors kids can control, like trying their best, persevering and being willing to practice and study.
“One child may get an A with minimal effort, while another may work extremely hard to get a C, so I remind parents to focus less on grades, and more on just encouraging their child to work to their potential,” Dr. Hillman said.
Also, teach your children that it’s OK to ask for help.
“The more parents normalize this behavior, the less anxiety the child will have when reaching out for help and support when needed,” she said.
Dr. Lowery said that, as a physician, she’s intentional about checking in with kids’ emotional health, as well as their physical health. She remembers a recent conversation with a high school sophomore who was already thinking about taking a “gap year” before going to college.
“I said, ‘You have three years before you have to worry about what you’re going to do in your gap year,’” Dr. Lowery said. “They’re all trying to have that competitive edge.”
She added that it is important for parents to set realistic expectations for their children, as well as making sure their children aren’t putting too much pressure on themselves.
4. They’re being bullied or excluded.
Social media has changed many of the social dynamics for students.
“In today’s digital world, it is very common for kids to feel left out,” Dr. Hillman said. “Social media will make it painfully obvious when they are excluded from social events, or with making them feel everyone else is having more fun than they are.”
The key, she said, is education about social media.
“It’s important to teach your children that nothing is truly deleted on the internet, so every post has a ‘forever’ shelf life,” Dr. Hillman said. “Teach them to post only those things that they are comfortable with everyone seeing.”
It’s impossible to monitor everything your child is doing online, so establishing good habits can help prevent problems later.
If you think your child might be being bullied online or in school, help them tell an adult at school.
“School initiatives for raising awareness and a unified stance on zero-tolerance policies will improve the school climate for children,” she said.
5. They’re not spending enough time with family.
“Time is the most precious resource of childhood,” Dr. Hillman said.
Because of many factors, many youth aren’t getting enough quality time with loved ones.
“I encourage parents to spend quality time with their children on a daily basis,” she said. “Whenever possible, put away your phone and be fully present with your child. Ask them about their day, their friends and their activities.”
She suggested participating in an activity your child likes with them—and just being available to them.
“Your child will benefit greatly emotionally from this support and will be more likely to communicate with you if anything is bothering them,” she said. “I have yet to come across any parent who feels they spend too much time with their child, but plenty who regret the missed opportunities.”