Stress and anxiety are a normal part of life’s challenges and difficulties. Yes - even for children and young people.

“But they don’t need to worry about paying bills or putting food on the table. They live free, easy lives. What do they need to be worried about.”

Let’s try and break away from this mentality.

Children and young people are not “broken”; they don’t need “fixing” – this is a fallacy. Nor are they emotionless androids.

In fact, it’s important for us as adults to help them understand their emotions and develop self awareness so that when problems, stresses and anxieties do occur - children and young people are more equipped for dealing with them. This will ultimately create greater resilience.

Stress and anxiety - what’s the difference?

We often find ourselves using the terms ‘stress’ and ‘anxiety’ interchangeably. However, there are some clear differences between the two.

Stress is a physical or mental tension in response to a trigger. These triggers can be something external, like an event that occurred, or even something internal like your own thoughts. We typically feel stress at a level that is in proportion to the trigger that is causing it. This is usually temporary and often goes away once the problem is resolved.

Anxiety, on the other hand, goes a little further. Anxiety is often a response to fear, uncertainty, or doubts we have about something that’s causing us stress. It takes a trigger and turns it into bigger, persistent worries. The disorder continues even when the external stressor stops and may even end up causing additional stressors. It is constant even if the immediate or initial stressor is no longer there.

It’s also important for us to appreciate the link between mental and physical health, and how stress and anxiety can impact on both. This includes excessive worry, apprehension, headaches or body pain, high blood pressure, and loss of sleep.

What do children and young people worry about?

Fortunately - paying taxes, getting fired from a job, or going on a first date aren’t their biggest concerns.

Children’s fears would look a little something like being afraid of the dark, being separated from parents, or having a fear of certain animals or insects. As children mature into their teenage years, so do their fears. Those childhood fears evolve into being scared of public speaking, bodily injuries, supernatural beings, and even death.

What’s helpful about this developmental aspect of anxiety is that we can provide some short-term support, knowing that the anxiety is likely to pass once that development stage has passed.

It’s a good idea to reflect on the impact of stress and anxiety that you’ve seen in children and young people. Maybe it’s the fact that they don’t want to come to school or have difficulty concentrating.

What about when exam season arrives?

As school takes up a big chunk of their lives, it’s expected and only normal that exams would be the main worry for most young people. Exam stress features highly for them.

It’s important that they’re supported every step of the way during exam season. Try giving them the “don’t panic - you’ve got this!” talk if they’ve had a bad day or bad week. Let them know what they can and can’t control. It’s crucial that they realise not every day or every week will be the best. However, emphasize the fact that consistency is key.

Encourage them to get rid of distractions. A mobile phone is probably the first thing that came to mind, right? Finally – don’t wait until they’ve nearly finished school to teach children and young people mindfulness, journaling, and calming down techniques. It’ll probably be too late by then.

How do I know when a child is anxious?

While it might be interesting to know what kids might be scared of, it’s also equally important for us to appreciate the signs and indicators of anxiety in children and young people. This can be manifested in numerous ways:

  • Difficulty concentrating;
  • Reduced appetite;
  • Crying constantly;
  • Clinginess to their parents or teachers;
  • Quickly getting agitated;
  • Disrupted sleeping pattern.

Some of us might often hear children complaining about headaches or stomach aches. When this happens, pay attention to when they are saying it. Is it always at the same time of the day? Is there a particular pattern to it?

What can I do about it?

You don’t have to do a hefty amount. Some of the smallest of things can have an immense impact. This can range from raising awareness, support with emotional containment and creating an environment at home or school which is non-stigmatising.

When children and young people are anxious and dysregulated, it’s important to acknowledge their distress, be patient and listen to them non-judgmentally. Encourage them to take their time and possibly ask open questions like “how long have you been feeling this way?” or “what type of things help you when you have felt like this before?”

What should I avoid?

It’s important to ask questions about how they’re feeling and their situation. But remember - avoid interrogating the child or young person as this will most likely cause them to feel more anxious. Ask questions in a slow and calm manner, rather than abruptly or rapidly.

If they’ve made a disclosure, don’t react with horror or shock. This will prevent them from continuing on and cause them to shut down, especially if the worst of their disclosure is to come.

So, what’s the bottom line here?

While stress and anxiety is expected in most cases and shouldn’t be a major cause for concern, it’s definitely important to make sure you recognise when these feelings are causing negative consequences.

If there are obvious indicators that a child or young person is going through something, it’s time to step in. Know where the barriers are and do what you can to comfort a child in times of need.