Children and families make many transitions throughout their lives: transition to parenthood, transition to school, moving house, birth of a sibling – all of these transitions present new experiences and challenges. Whether or not this represents a time of stress depends on children’s perceptions of the event as well as the level of support they receive.
Common causes of stress and anxiety among children
Family events. Stress inducing events within the family context include such things as divorce, death in the family, moving house, parental illness, having a sibling with a disability or even the birth of a new sibling. In a study examining stress among children and adolescents, bedwetting ranked third as the most stressful event after parental divorce and parental fighting.
Social or school events. This comprises such things as starting school, moving schools, social difficulties including fights with friends and bullying, peer pressure or expectations about school performance.
Over-scheduled lives. Children’s lives are becoming increasingly over-scheduled, full of adult-led activities. While some children cope well with this ‘hurried’ existence others find running from one activity to the next incredibly stressful.
Community or world events. The experience of crime or natural disasters either directly or through the news can cause significant stress and anxiety in children. Violent images presented on the television about war and terrorism can be very distressing to children, with many worrying that something bad might happen to them or to someone they love.
Common anxieties in school-age children
Separation anxiety. Children with separation anxiety feel constantly worried or fearful about separation; they may display an unreasonable fear of school, and will go to great lengths to stay home. Children’s anxiety may also result from the fear that something will happen to their parent when they are at school. These children often complain they feel ill and may experience difficulty sleeping, due to recurrent nightmares or the fear of being alone.
Social phobia. Social phobia refers to a fear of social situations. Children experiencing social phobia typically have few friends, are excessively shy and self-conscious. Children avoid social situations or interactions like talking to new people, speaking-up in class, or attending slumber parties as they feel embarrassed or fear being judged or humiliated by their peers.
How do I know if my child is experiencing stress or anxiety?
Common signs of stress or anxiety in children include such things as:
- Increased fear of new situations or being alone
- Physical symptoms or complaints such as stomach aches and headaches
- Difficulty sleeping or nightmares
- Regressive symptoms, a child who was dry at night may start wetting the bed
- Social withdrawal or excessive clinginess
- Changes in behaviour, mood swings, irritability, aggression
- Avoidance of social activities like sleepovers or school camps
What does it mean if my child is refusing to go to school?
Extreme anxiety can sometimes lead to school refusal. Children may complain of physical illness such as nausea or stomach aches of a morning before school, only for this to disappear when they are allowed to stay home. School refusal often occurs during times of transition including starting school, or moving to high school and can result from a number of factors including fear of the unknown, difficulties with peers, being the victim of bullying, or fear that they will not do well at school. As a parent it is essential that you keep your child in school as time away from school can actually enhance your child’s anxiety rather than resolve it.