Kids aren’t just miniature adults.
Ask any pediatric specialist and they’ll tell you that kids’ minds, brains, and bodies don’t function the same as yours and mine…and they’re not supposed to (yet)!
This might seem like a “duh” concept, but while we’re quick to notice the difference between kids and adults in areas like cognition, hormones, and muscular development, we often don’t appreciate these same functional differences in stress response.
When kids are stressed out, they sometimes have anxious feelings, panic attacks, strong emotional responses, and a hard time falling asleep. But not always. And the absence of these more obvious stress-related symptoms doesn’t mean that your child isn’t stressed. Especially for young children, it can be difficult for kids to tell us what’s happening in their bodies and minds. This often leaves parents, caretakers, and teachers in the dark.
The following are three common signs of stress that are often missed or attributed to a different cause, especially in kids. Since the first step to optimizing the body’s stress response system is recognizing when it’s not working well, keeping an eye out for these signs will help you know when and how to help the stressed children in your life.
In the 10 years that I’ve been practicing Functional Medicine, I’ve often felt that treating disrupted digestion is like playing the most frustrating game of “whack-a-mole” in the world. Because there are so many things that can go wrong or get off-balance, it seems like as soon as you whack down one issue, another pops up! Not to mention that each component of the digestive system affects the others, and quickly.
That’s why it can be so confusing when a child experiences digestive complaints such as nausea, constipation, stomachaches, diarrhea, or lack of appetite. Is it acid reflux? A food sensitivity? IBS? Dysbiosis? Let’s consider the action of stress hormones on the digestive tract to look for some clues.
When the short-term, fight-or-flight response is triggered in the brain, it causes a change in gut motility (how quickly food and waste is moved through the digestive tract). In the upper GI organs, motility slows down. The stomach stays full and food doesn’t move into the intestines as quickly, which can cause feelings of nausea or reflux. In the lower GI organs, motility speeds up, causing cramps, urgency, or diarrhea.
When stress becomes long-term or chronic, the opposite may happen. Appetite and cravings increase while elimination decreases, causing constipation. Each child’s body handles stress differently, so paying close attention to any changes from “normal” helps us find the root of the issue.
If a child in your life is experiencing digestive disruption, be sure to consider stress when looking for the cause.
Do you know a child who is always sniffling or coughing? Does it seem like they pick up colds and flus often, perhaps more often than their peers or siblings? One of the subtler signs of chronic stress in children is impaired immunity or frequent infections.
Let’s not forget that physical stress can also impact your child’s health, not just mental and emotional stress. Anything that creates a stress response in the body can be a trigger, including poor nutrition, lack of exercise, insufficient micronutrients, or even inflammation from an injury. These types of stressors can weaken the immune system over time and make it harder for kids to fight off illnesses. In return, the body’s immune response can itself be a stressor, setting up a spiral or cycle of sickness that’s all too familiar to many parents.
The combination of inherent germ-sharing that happens at school and academic stress, especially if schedules and norms are disrupted by public health measures again this year, means we need to look for deeper solutions than extra hand-washing and the occasional Vitamin C gummy. Addressing the physical stressors by improving your child’s diet, replacing micronutrients, and encouraging outdoor activity can break the stress/sickness cycle.
Headaches are another multifactorial (caused by many different factors) signal that your child may be stressed. Tension headaches are frequently triggered by stress because stress tightens the muscles of the scalp and neck. Teeth-grinding or jaw-clenching is another often-subconscious response to mental stress, and can lead to headaches. Eye strain from the overuse of phones, tablets, and other screens can cause headaches. Lack of restful, relaxed sleep (a common co-symptom of stress) may also contribute to the throbbing pain of a tension headache.
Migraine headaches can also be triggered by stress – physical, mental, or emotional. I’ve met children who get a migraine as a response to being called out in class or embarrassed. Some get migraines from sun or heat stress. Some when electrolytes are imbalanced. Some get a migraine in anticipation of a big test or presentation, or if they’re being bullied. And some migraines seem to come out of the blue (which can be stressful, too)!
All of these scenarios are stressors, and it’s our job to recognize and treat them instead of relying on the quick-and-easy fix of pain meds.
Why it Matters
You don’t need me to tell you that school is stressful, perhaps now more than ever.
The sooner we recognize the role that stress is playing in our children’s lives, whether we’re teachers, parents, or caretakers, the more capable we’ll be of finding a lasting, healthy solution. Stress, when left unchecked, sets our kids up for all kinds of hardship in the future, and they’re not always able to tell us when it’s a problem. Sometimes they don’t even know! That’s why it’s our job to watch for stress manifesting itself in less-than-obvious ways, and address the cause, not just the symptoms.
Need help managing your child’s stress this school year? I’ve got a plan for that.
You can learn more HERE!