What’s the Difference Between Child Stress and Anxiety?


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Some Stress and Anxiety is OK, but how much is too much?

All children are likely to experience stress and anxiety at some time of their lives, and to an extent, this is developmentally appropriate. Children learn through their experiences, so with the right support from parents and caregivers, learning to cope with some stresses and worries actually helps children to build coping skills, independence, and resilience.

However, how do you know if your child is feeling the stresses of life, or is feeling anxiety? And how much is too much?

This blog provides some useful information about the differences between typical stress and anxiety in children, and provides some guidance around when to seek professional help.

Child Stress

Children can experience stress in similar ways that adults do. When stressed, they feel physical changes in their bodies and become more psychologically and emotionally vulnerable. When children feel stress from circumstances in their environment, it activates a stress response system in their brain. This releases stress hormones into their bodies, and increases their body’s level of arousal, including making their hearts go faster, and their blood pressure rise. This can happen on the inside, even if from the outside, your child does not appear overly stressed.

Small and brief amounts of stress are ok, and can actually motivate children towards action, such as stress and pressure of a homework deadline. However, persistent, daily, and chronic stimulation of a child’s stress response system has been shown to disrupt the developing architecture of their brain and have negative effects on their overall well-being and development, especially if the stress is outside of the child’s control.

Typical sources of daily stress to be mindful of include:

  • Busy and rushed schedules and households
  • Conflicts with friends or family
  • Experiencing new situations or environments
  • Transitioning into kinder, primary or secondary school
  • Separation from caregivers
  • Too many demands placed on the child

Sources of chronic stress for children:

  • Ongoing family conflict
  • Significant health or illness in child or family member
  • Frequently moving house, or schools
  • Domestic violence, or fear-evoking situations in the home
  • Being bullied
  • Ongoing unrealistic and high demands placed on child
  • Ongoing busy lifestyles, too many extracurricular activities, and not enough rest and free play

It is normal and typical for children to experience and have to learn how to deal with some daily stressors, however, stress can be accumulative, so if there is a number of different stresses happening in your child’s life, be mindful of the impact it might be having on your child, and how your child is coping with this. A high level of unrelieved stress can actually lead to behavioural, learning, and emotional problems. It can also lead to increased risk of anxiety.

Child Anxiety

Children and adolescents experience anxiety much the same as adults do.

Child anxiety is like an internal stress and can generally include the following three categories of symptoms:

  1. Worry Thoughts & Feelings: having lots of worries or fears, dread and worried anticipation, rumination, worries that are disproportionate to the event or situation
  2. Physical Sensations: panic and distress in the body, including sore stomachs, butterflies in the stomach, headaches, racing heart, nausea, shaking
  3. Behaviours: anxious children and teens tend to display strong avoidant behaviours such as resisting and refusing to go somewhere or do something. They seek to stay close to parents and excessive reassurance. They may display anger and protest behaviours. Some children may also appear to be easily startled and are on ‘high alert’ for danger

Children with anxiety tend to worry or be fearful of something much more than they really need to be, that is; their worries tend to be disproportionate to the event or situation, and they often underestimate their ability to cope.

When children are anxious, their worry thoughts can create a sense of threat, danger, distress, and sense of being unsafe, and this is what creates what is commonly known as the “fight and flight response” in their bodies. This is a cascade of physical reactions in their brains and bodies as a result of a perceived threat, which increases the bodies level of arousal and alertness, just the same as when they are stressed. Fear and worry often propels children to seek safety, often either through avoiding the situation, or clinging to a safety person.

The main difference between a stressed child versus an anxious child is that a stressed child tends to experience distress due to the pressure of external circumstances, whereas an anxious child experiences distress due to the internal worry, fear and perception of threat they have of a particular situation.

As stress and anxiety target the same regions of the brain, and activate the same stress hormones in the body, stressed children and anxious children tend to show the same kind of symptoms. Furthermore, stressed children are more likely to develop emotional problems such as anxiety, compared to children in less stressful environments.

So what can I do to help?

  1. If you think your child is exposed to lots of external stresses, have a look at ways you can reduce this. Are there ways to slow down or reduce activities if you think your child is overscheduled? Can you balance out rushed and busy parts of the week with a similar amount of ‘down time’ or unstructured free time for your child?
  1. Have a look at any particular situations or events which may be triggering your child’s stress or anxiety. Is there anything you can do together to help address the problem?
  1. Evaluate the symptoms. How many stress or anxiety signs is your child showing? Check out our blog “Is My Child Anxious? – 10 common symptoms that may signal anxiety in children” for a common symptom checklist

When Should I Seek Professional Help?

It is normal for children to feel stressed or anxious at certain times in their lives, and many children will manage these situations without any lingering difficulties. However, some tell tale signs that a child may be experiencing more distress than is typical for them is when their stress, worry, fear, or anxiety:

  • Significantly interferes with, or disrupts their ability to carry out everyday tasks and activities that is typical for a child of that age
  • Has been persisting for more than a couple of weeks
  • Prevents and holds them back from doing the things they want to do
  • Interferes with their ability to eat, sleep, and relax, or their relationships
  • They seem more emotionally reactive than usual, eg, more sensitive, and doesn’t tend to ‘bounce back’ from minor upsets
  • They are becoming withdrawn, sad, or showing more aggressive behaviours

Speaking to an experienced Psychologist can assist parents to better understand their child’s stresses, worries and fears, and provide an opportunity to help their child gain knowledge, strategies and support to build resilience, independence, and coping skills for life.

If you found these tips useful and would like to find out more please speak to one of our psychologists at SW Psychology.

Written by: Shannyn Wilson – Psychologist at SW Psychology

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