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BIRMINGHAM – Stress and anxiety in childhood can stem from a variety of sources – a big test, the start of a new school year or an upcoming performance – and involve both physical and emotional responses.
“Stress tends to be in the face of an external trigger like a big test or performance whereas anxiety tends to involve more persistent or excessive worry even in the absence of a stressor,” said Dr. Nina Reynolds, clinical psychologist, Children’s of Alabama.
When your child is stressed or anxious, he or she may show both emotional and behavioral signs such as irritability, moodiness, concentration problems, fatigue, stomach aches or headaches and difficulty sleeping.
“Sometimes parents worry that if they ask or point out that their child is stressed that it will make it worse, when actually the opposite is true,” Reynolds said. “I hear from a lot of kids that they want to talk about how they are feeling, but they don't tell their parents about their stress because they don’t want to upset or burden the parent, and not because it would make their stress any worse.”
Reynolds suggests talking about feelings at times when your child is already calm, because typically, when your child is already stressed or upset, it can be difficult for them to explain how they are feeling and may make them more upset. “As parents, we often want to fix or rescue, but it is important to listen and validate your child's feelings before offering suggestions,” she said.
Both mild stress and mild anxiety typically respond well to coping mechanisms such as talking with friends or family, relaxation like deep breathing, exercise, or good sleep and diet. It is helpful not just to talk or teach your child, but also to model or practice these strategies together.
“If however, you notice that your child is not responding to these strategies, or doesn't seem able to use coping skills or certainly if you see their mood worsening that's when I would seek guidance from a mental health professional,” Reynolds said.
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Since 1911, Children’s of Alabama has provided specialized medical care for ill and injured children, offering inpatient, outpatient and primary care throughout central Alabama. Ranked among the best children’s hospitals in the nation by U.S. News & World Report, Children’s serves patients from every county in Alabama and nearly every state. Children’s is a private, not-for-profit medical center that serves as the teaching hospital for the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) pediatric medicine, surgery, psychiatry, research and residency programs. The medical staff consists of UAB faculty and Children’s full-time physicians as well as private practicing community physicians.