Stress–something that we parents think we’re only affected by, but our kiddos can get stressed too–super stressed. One day, I was talking to a friend who’s child is friend’s with mine–she begins to tell me that her child has been crying easily, gets super frustrated, and has NOT been wanting to go to school. “Same with mine,” I exclaim. The next day I have the same conversation with a different friend, and then again with yet another friend. What was going on? Was it the beginning of second grade? Turning eight? I decided that we needed answers, STAT, and turned to Breezy Mama‘s Go-To child and family psychotherapist, Dr. Fran Walfish, for help.
Some kids hold stress in – what are the signs we moms should look out for that indicate our child may be stressed out?
Some kids hold stress in while others act-out. Know your child’s norm and be vigilantly aware of changes. Here are some of the classic signs your child may be stressed out: changes in mood, behavior, or personality including anger or sullen; changes in eating and sleeping patterns; social isolation or staying in her room for hours; and he tells you he is stressed. Always pay attention to your child’s expression of his state of mind.
How does stress manifest itself versus typical 8 year old behavior? Sometimes moms wonder if their child’s behavior is normal for their age, or is it stress acting out?
Let’s talk for a moment about respectful behavior. As a child psychologist, I expect reasonably respectful behavior. This means the norm for your is to speak to you without attitude, eye-rolling, or a sarcastic put-down tone of voice. Many parents have not yet succeeded in teaching this to their 8 year-olds. If that is the case, you are late in the race. But, it’s not too late to implement the following technique. Each time your child speaks disrespectfully ask her to rephrase in a “friendly” or “respectful” tone of voice. If she, like many kids, delivers an insincere rote repeat of the phrase have her try again until she says it like she means it with respect.
If your child normally speaks respectfully to you and suddenly out of her lips emerge sassy attitude you can assume she is under stress and something is bothering her. Instead of criticizing, attacking back, or punishing her have a sit down straight talk with her. Tell her you notice that her patience is shorter than usual and it seems like something is bugging her. You are there to listen, not to leap to solutions. Just listen without interruptions and reflect back what you hear her saying. She will feel understood and accepted by you – flaws and all!
With the moms I talk to, it seems as if their kids are crying at the drop of a hat. For example, one child started crying when his teammates at soccer practice took away his ball. Is this normal?
‘Normal’ is a tricky word. Let’s just say that it is not typically expected behavior for 8 year-olds to cry at the drop of hat. Most 8 year-olds are hyper aware of their peers. They would do everything possible to not cry or fall apart on the soccer field. That said, I do see a trend in parents today. Many parents have not adequately equipped their kids with coping skills to deal with disappointments. Many kids do meltdown quicker and take longer to recover.
The best way to strength your child’s emotional sturdiness with muscles to deal with letdowns is to allow him to feel the disappointment and talk him through the upset. For example, the mom of the boy who cried when at soccer practice his teammates took away his ball can say with genuine empathy things like, “You were so frustrated when you were playing your best and Johnny got your ball. That’s a tough move to handle.” The mom’s empathy penetrates her son’s sense of himself and eventually he will be able to self-soothe by telling himself, “That was hard, I’ll do better on the next play.”
With the start of second grade, I hear more and more kids complaining about not wanting to go to school, when it wasn’t a problem in the past—why is this?
There are a few reasons why a second grader may suddenly complain about going to school when it wasn’t a problem in the past. One reason is that second grade raises the bar of academic expectations. The work just gets harder. If a child has a subtle learning challenge he or she may have slipped through the cracks in Kindergarten and first grade but suddenly feels overwhelmed by the work.
Another reason may be social. By second grade kids have formed groups and cliques. Children can be fickle and mean. Often, a child may feel locked out of a friendship group that she belonged to in first grade. Or, a new child entered the school or class and suddenly she is the greatest thing since sliced bread. Your child feels less important. Sometimes, children don’t want to go to school when they have endured a trauma, harshly punitive punishments, or there is marital fighting in the home. Don’t guess. Talk openly with your child. Find out what feels good and what doesn’t feel good to him. Together you can get through anything. He will be comforted when you tell him this.
I’ve noticed that my son gets extremely frustrated, whether it’s his little sister bothering him to homework, very easily. Is this a sign of stress?
This shortened fuse and extreme frustration in your son sounds more like anger than stress. He is angry and stress may be at the root of it. Or, he may have ambivalent, jealous, rivalrous feelings about his younger sister. It is possible that the homework is difficult for him and making him feel badly about himself. Get to the root of it by talking with him.
Do children regress at this age? It seems as if all the insecurities that they had as toddlers are coming out again (i.e. shyness).
Great question! Children indeed go through a transition at age 7 years. Here’s a quick brush up on child psychological development 101. During the first 12 months of life, the main psychological goal for the infant is bonding and attachment. Around age 12 months most children stand and take their first steps. This begins the separation process.
From 18 months to age 4 years children are in Rapprochement Phase which is a rhythmic checking back and forth between attachment and separation. It looks like this…..your toddler is holding your hand. He looks across the room and sees an interesting toy. He lets go of your hand, toddles across the room, and picks up the toy with glee. Suddenly, he feels a normal tinge of separation anxiety. So, he picks up the toy and toddles back to you placing the toy in your hands. This is not about the toy. It is your child’s way of testing the boundaries of separation. He practices leaving you by needs to reassure himself that you will always be there securely based where he left you in order to return to. This process happens hundreds of times each day until your child internalizes a securely based mommy within himself.
The preschool years continue early child development and the youngster age 6 years and under is still emotionally pliable and open. Come age 7, every boy and girl enters the Latency Phase of development. During this phase from 7-12 years kids go underground. During time their defenses are taking shape and gelling. You will notice that your child comes home from school and you ask, “How was your day today?” He says, “Good.” You continue with, “What’d you do in school?” He answers, “Nothing.” It’s harder to get inside his mind and really know what he is thinking. It is a time of hibernation. The answer to your question is that children do not regress at age 7 or 8, but rather they hibernate and shut you out a bit. It takes more effort to chip away at their defenses and get inside.
Come age 13, adolescence is kick-started. The adolescent phase mirrors toddlerhood. The toddler’s goal is to claim himself as a separate being from mommy and daddy. The teenager’s goal is to resolve the separation that was established earlier. That means teens rev up with opposition. They must come out of adolescence with their own opinions and ideas about life including relationships, sex, religion, morals, ethics, and character.
Is it more common for a first born to put more stress on themselves?
In general, I have seen a higher level of stress and anxiety in firstborn children. This is usually because they were the guinea pig for their parents who knew nothing about raising a child. Often, first time parents themselves have higher levels of stress and anxiety. They worry about hurting their child and often want to do everything perfectly, which we all know is impossible.
How can we help our kids cope with stress?
You can help your kids cope with stress by first making sure your child is not over-scheduled with too many activities. I treat so many kids in my private practice who throw themselves onto my couch moaning and complaining that they just long for quiet down time. Also very important, tell your wound uptight child with real compassion and an empathetic tone, “You know sometimes it must be hard to be you because you’re so hard on yourself. It’s like you don’t even give yourself a chance to make a teeny tiny mistake. Cut yourself some slack.”
Anything you’d like to add?
My best advice to parents is to listen, truly listen, to your kids when they say they are stressed and overwhelmed. Ease their load without over-protecting. Create that balance so they remain stimulated and motivated to keep trying, learning, and growing.
About Dr. Frances Walfish:
Frances Walfish, Psy.D. is the foremost Beverly Hills child and family psychotherapist. Her caring approach, exuberant style, humor, and astute insights have earned her a sterling reputation among colleagues and national media alike. A frequent guest on top-tier TV programs, including NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams and KABC-TV in Los Angeles, The Doctors, CBS and often appearing in major publications such as Parents Magazine, Family Circle and Woman’s Day, Dr. Fran continues to lead the field with her expert insights and innovative strategies for parents, children and couples.
Her current book, The Self-Aware Parent: Resolving Conflict and Building a Better Bond with Your Child from Palgrave Macmillan’s/St. Martin’s Press, December 7, 2010, is receiving acclaimed reviews. William Morris Endeavor and Lake Paradise Entertainment are presently collaborating with Dr. Fran to produce a television series offering therapeutic guidance and help to families in America. More information on Dr. Fran can be found online at DrFranWalfish.com.
To order Dr. Walfish’s book ($11.56 on Amazon), click here.