There is a big misconception that kids don’t feel stress, but they experience anxiety in intense ways—ways that are perhaps different from the ways adults experience it. Even at the young ages of 8 or 9, many children present with psychosomatic symptoms of anxiety issues such as chest heaviness, nocturnal urination, upset stomach, and sleep disturbances. In addition, they may display symptoms of obsessive compulsion such as pulling hair and eyelashes, biting fingernails, and facial tics as a way of coping with nervousness and tension.
There are many triggers and reasons this may occur:
- Trauma and exposure to verbal or physical abuse
- Loss of a loved one
- Sudden environmental changes
- Pressure to be perfect or to please parents
- Being socially excluded from friends and peers due to being different
No matter the reasons—and sometimes there is no way to change or resolve many of them, such as a death in the family—there is often a common denominator heightening these symptoms: Children have not learned how to identify and express their feelings. They end up affected by many negative emotions and experiences in a way that is outside awareness and therefore difficult to manage. If they don’t know what it is that they are feeling, it might affect them in unpredictable ways. A 5-year-old boy who feels rejected by an absent parent will feel something new, something for which he has not even created vocabulary yet. He might react to these feelings with behavioral symptoms such as inability to sleep, stomach pain when left alone, or pulling his hair.
Children do not take a step back to “process” their experiences. They feel and react. And this is where parental contribution comes in.
It is important that parents or caretakers help their children acknowledge and express their feelings. Most importantly, they should promote an environment of safety and comfort in doing so. For example, saying something like, “Honey, what you felt is called rejection and it’s a normal feeling we all feel sometimes; let us see what we can do to face it” can alleviate a great deal of stress in children. This can be done in creative and fun ways.
For example, we may write down the words for different feelings, such as jealousy, sadness, anger, and excitement, on a piece of paper. We may also draw faces that go along with these feelings and then randomly pick these pieces of paper out of a bag. Once the child reads or sees the emotion on paper, he or she can talk about the last time he or she felt this way. Another creative way is to go through family pictures, or images in magazines or books, and encourage the child to talk about what feelings these images may elicit. For example, the adult may say, “When I saw this picture of our old house, I felt nostalgic—it made me miss it! How did YOU feel?” By doing so, we allow children to identify, acknowledge and express what they feel in order to manage the feeling more easily. This way, we reduce any shame or discomfort associated with a particular emotion or experience, reinforce the feeling of normalcy, and allow the child to feel supported in dealing with an emotional experience.
The above recommendations can be used both as a way to prevent and to handle symptoms of anxiety in children. If you find that your child is experiencing uncontrollable worry and physical symptoms of anxiety, you are not alone. Consider visiting a counselor or a therapist for help.
© Copyright 2013 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Olga Gonithellis, MA, MEd, LMHC, therapist in New York City, New York
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