Published on December 18, 2022

Stressed people are often the last to recognise what is happening. Our children are no exception.

Could my child be stressed?

Just because your daughter isn’t complaining about finding your divorce stressful, it doesn’t mean she’s not suffering. If your toddler seems to be behaving differently: irritable, crying more than usual, having nightmares and regressing, chances are she’s stressed. Likewise, if younger children are permanently tired, not sleeping, whinging and doing badly at school, they too may be stressed. Teenagers, on the other hand, may surprise you with outbursts of anger, missing school and generally feeling bad and miserable about themselves and the rest of the world.

Children who have ongoing stress are more likely to develop colds, digestive problems, anxiety disorders, headaches and obesity. 

Children who have ongoing stress are more likely to develop colds, digestive problems, anxiety disorders, headaches and obesity. Unless they learn to cope with stress, they’re more likely to misuse drugs and alcohol in their teens and adult life and become depressed and even suicidal.

What kicks off stress?

It could be almost anything. Common sources of stress include the death of a pet, arrival of a new brother or sister, dad being made redundant, parental separation, moving home, changing school, exams, university applications, being bullied, the death of a grandparent or an unresolved family argument.

What helps?

Sound, confiding relationships with adults are enormously helpful. It doesn’t matter who they are: parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, godparents, family friends or teachers. Stressed children may not know what is causing them to feel awful and behave differently to usual. The trigger may be divorce, but ongoing stress in children often overwhelms them when there is more than one difficulty. What helps is being an active listener and being prepared to ask open questions to tease out what is wrong. Being heard and taken seriously by a parent helps children of all ages cope better with stress.

What else helps?

• Breathing slowly and deeply
• Having a long warm bath and listening to favourite music
• Exercise
• Hobbies to retreat into
• Relaxation exercises

Even very young children can learn a relaxation exercise called progressive muscle relaxation.

When to seek professional help

All children and adults feel stressed from time to time. Experiencing some anxiety in childhood and beyond is normal. As parents know, most toddlers are afraid of monsters and many children show some signs of anxiety on their first day at school.

Anxiety becomes a problem when it interferes with a child’s life. For instance, fear of contamination can lead to avoidance that gets in the way of friendships, fear of being away from home often affects a child’s ability to go to school and fear of the dark stops a child going to sleep. Children and young people with anxiety disorders experience extreme fears, worries or a sense of dread that is out of proportion with a real or imagined threat, and impacts on many aspects of life.

Anxiety disorders change how children and young people think, often affecting their ability to make logical decisions. Although historically thought to be harmless, these disorders can interfere with academic, social and family life.

Although anxiety disorders are so common in children and teenagers, they are also one of the least well understood conditions in this age group. Most anxiety disorders begin between the ages of 12 and 21, although they are often first diagnosed later in life. Anxiety disorders affect between one in five and one in ten children and teenagers at some stage of their lives. There is good evidence for early intervention and self- management for children and young people with anxiety disorders. Delays in diagnosis, failure to involve patients in treatment and poor follow up can lead to further deterioration.

When to see a specialist?

1. Does your child worry or ask for reassurance almost every day?
2. Does your child consistently avoid certain age-appropriate situations or activities, or avoid doing them without a parent?
3. Does your child frequently have tummy ache, headaches, or episodes of hyperventilation?
4. Does your child have daily repetitive rituals?

Ask for specialist assessment and therapy if:

1. Your child or teenager has persistent worries or intrusive thoughts, extreme clinging, avoidance, or repetitive behaviours that interfere with school performance, friendships or family life.
2. Your child has palpitations, chest pain, abdominal pain, vomiting, shortness of breath or sleeping problems for which no physical cause can be found.

Dr Sabina Dosani contributed to ‘Separating With Children 101, 3rd edition, (Bath Publishing, 2023).

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The Impact On Children

It is so easy to be told that you need to put your children first when we are separating, but what does it actually mean? When your life is turmoil and emotions are running high this can feel daunting when there are so many things to think about. If you have a child with someone, then regardless of whatever you think of them or whatever they might have done, they will still have an important role to play in the life of your child. Exceptions to this are rare. Possessive language that excludes or minimises the role of the other parent can negatively impact the relationship between that parent and the child and can increase conflict and make it more difficult to co-parent. We know that conflict and/or parental absence in particular has a negative impact on children.

Parents need to create the right conditions for children to thrive.

For children, whilst separation will bring inevitable feelings of loss and change, they can still thrive if their parents work in partnership to create the right conditions. We know that children are more likely to adapt with fewer problems, and less emotional distress, when parents are able to part with compassion and continue to work together in partnership even when they are not together. On this hub you will find lots of article and tips on how to minimise the impact on children. For example; how do you set up two homes? How do you co-parent well? What does it mean to put your children first? How do you tell your child you are separating? What do I tell the school? What about holidays? And much more...

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