Children, why do they experience stress? How do they cope with stress? In this article, Senior Clinical Psychologist Ms. Siew Choo Ting tells us why some children experience stress during the COVID-19 pandemic, what causes such stress, how stress is manifested in children, and finally, how to help them cope with stress.
Regulations and restrictions changed rapidly throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and have inevitably impacted our lives. Though measures are relaxed, there is no telling if there will be a next COVID-19 wave as new variants continue to emerge. For children in Singapore, there was significant disruption to their daily routines – classes were conducted virtually, homework had to be done online, and social interaction was minimized with home-based learning.
As some social service agencies in Singapore observed1, more children and youth reached out to seek help during the pandemic, with feelings of loneliness, trapped, and being stressed being reported.
While stress is felt in adults and children, Ms. Siew explained that children experience things differently than adults.
“Stress is a normal reaction. Everyone experiences stress at some point in their lives. The COVID-19 pandemic is a novel and dynamic situation, so it's normal for people to feel the way they feel,” she shared.
On the different types of stress, Ms. Siew said stress comes in various forms. "When one is faced with moderate stress, or what we sometimes refer to as good stress, it increases their motivation, performance, and well-being. However, when one is placed in the red zone where there are many different types of stress experienced at once, that is when it can overwhelm an individual’s ability to cope," she explained.
“When someone stays in the red zone for a long time, he or she experiences exhaustion and anxiety, and this can start to interfere in their daily activities,” she added.
For example, if your child does not feel any stress around examinations, they might spend their days watching Netflix or playing computer games, with little motivation to study.
Ms. Siew then drew parallels to the COVID-19 pandemic, stating that if one was not stressed about the growing number of people getting infected by the COVID-19 pandemic, they might not take the necessary precautions to safeguard their health and safety from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Reiterating her point of stress being a necessary part of our lives, she said an optimal level of stress is needed to motivate people, and the desire to solve problems goes up, which helps improve one's performance.
Just like adults, children experience different sources of stress, and their capacity to manage these differs too. While unfamiliar situations can be scary, not every child responds similarly.
Changes in routine can cause stress. Due to the pandemic, children have had to adapt to online lessons. Studying online is an unfamiliar experience for children, which might cause them to feel additional stress on their study load.
As children are not as emotionally mature as adults, it is common for children to be less aware of the symptoms of stress. As a result, they may not even recognize stress when they experience it. However, there are signs to look out for that can be noticeable to parents and doctors.
“When stressed, some children can have difficulty concentrating. Some children may become more aggressive and irritable, while some children become clingier. However, on the flip side, some may also withdraw from others. We often notice children speaking of stress in the form of physical manifestations, for example complaining of physical discomforts such as headaches and stomach aches." Ms. Siew noted.
Children may exhibit behavioral changes too. These include a change in appetite, difficulty sleeping, impulsive behaviors, and being defiant towards adults. Some might lose interest in a hobby. Others unconsciously bite their nails and grind their teeth while sleeping at night.
“Paying attention to our children's lives and observing significant behavioral and temperamental changes can help alert us to stress that children might be experiencing," she advised.
“Firstly, being a good source of information for your children is key to learning to cope with stress of the pandemic,” Ms. Siew advised. “With most children enjoying unrestricted access to the internet, they might not be able to discern the kind of media that is suitable for them to consume. Hence, this is where parents come in to guide them.”
To help ease their uncertainty regarding topics such as the pandemic, parents should discuss and explain these situations with the help of stories or infographics to help prepare them for what is to come. She said it is similar to a regular conversation on what to expect on the first day in school or when they go through puberty-related physical changes.
It will also be helpful for parents to make time to listen and connect with the children, assisting them in identifying, naming, and acknowledging their feelings, validating that these are normal to have given the uncertainty of the situation. Being present helps to soothe them and build more capacity for the children to hold space for these feelings. Practicing simple techniques such as belly breathing and grounding together with the child can also model helpful coping for them when they encounter stressful situations in the future.