How To Tell If Your Child Is Stressed This Summer

How to tell is your child is stressed this summer

July 26, 2017

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Posted in: Families, Grade School, Teenagers

Summertime…and the kids are stressed out.

That’s not exactly the song that most of us might remember as we welcome the seemingly carefree days of summer vacation. Still, summer can be surprisingly stressful for children and adolescents. We can’t possibly get into all the reasons now, or else this would be a book instead of a blog post. However, consider this key fact:

If your kids are school-aged (and not home-schooled), then they’ve been AT school for the last nine months—and kids grow a ton during that time. What looked like stress back in the fall might not look at all the same come July.

But, for all of the wonderful differences that our children have, there are, luckily, still some relatively tried-and-true similarities. Among the most prominent of these are markers of stress—that is, the signs that your child is getting a bit too over-wrought. Here are five signs that your child might not be as relaxed as you’d like him or her to be during these dog days of summer:

  • At a certain point, being vegetative can make one a vegetable. Don’t, however, get too worked up over an initial vegetative period at the start of summer. Today’s kids work harder in school than ever before. So, if your child wants to eat a lot of cereal and read a lot comics (oh, sorry…graphic novels), then that’s totally fine. TV is also fine. It’s just not fine all the time. Summer has all sorts of opportunities to get social and connected and active. If you child wants nothing more than to sit around and do absolutely nothing for more than a week or two, it’s very possible that he or she might be doing more than just vegging out. He or she might be depressed, or overly shy, or not sure how to spend his or her time. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and try to understand what’s keeping him or her indoors.
  • Too little sleep. This is a central marker for stress in children, but the interpretation of disordered sleep can be a bit cyclical. For example, a child might not be sleeping well because of obsessive worrying, but then the lack of sleep makes the ability to tolerate the worry even more tenuous. There might be someone at the pool or park who’s bullying him or her. There might be a relationship that’s gone awry. There might be a late-night distraction on social media that is too over-stimulating. Again, nothing is better than simply asking. Even if your child seems to blow you off initially, it doesn’t mean that he or she isn’t hearing you. Most often, your child will mull over your questions and get back to you.
  • Too much sleep. You had to expect this one too, right? Kids sleep a lot, mostly because they’re growing a lot. There’s also a natural tendency, especially during adolescence, to stay up late—it’s when the developing brain is consolidating information. However, this means you might mistake sleeping too much with simply sleeping too late. Still, many kids will avoid the stress of the day by taking to the comfort of their beds. After you’ve done some troubleshooting around what your child might be avoiding (again, by asking him or her), work toward establishing a regular routine. As much as possible, aim for the same time for bed and getting up—even on weekends. If you need to, get your child to turn off the electronics at night.
  • Changes in eating associated with changes in affect. Affect is the term mental health folks use to describe the way someone looks like he or she feels. For example, someone might have a happy affect, a concerned affect, or an anxious affect. Because kids change their eating patterns often during normal development, changes in eating habits—outside of extremely disordered eating—are usually fine as long as nutritional needs are being met. However, if you notice a change in eating that correlates with a change in affect (especially a change for the worse), ask your child how things are going. Often times, talking about eating serves as the entry point for talking about more emotional topics.
  • Separate the normal surliness from the absolutely over-the-top surliness. It’s hardly a news flash that a certain level of surliness comes with being a child. Kids can be rude, and disrespectful, and generally difficult to be with sometimes. Most of this behavior is normal; it’s the way kids naturally separate themselves from their parents—and usually, with a bit of time and redirection, children and adolescents will learn to come around and be nicer. But, if the surliness gets worse instead of better, and you’re relatively sure that what you’re seeing is off the charts, such a degree of irritability can be a serious sign of emotional distress. This is when you check in with your own friends and your partner to make sure you’re not over-reading what you think you’re seeing. Then, gently point out to your child that he or she’s been more difficult lately. Don’t be punishing or patronizing, but make it clear that you’re concerned. A non-threatening approach like this often promotes conversation.

This list is hardly exhaustive. Still, the bottom line ought to be obvious by now: Talk to your child. Ask your child how he or she is doing. Observe how he or she is doing. These are the best tickets for understanding whether your child is stressed out, and will help you ascertain how to make things better. And, if you are at all worried, start with your pediatrician. You don’t want to lose your summer by worrying.

– Originally posted on 12 July 2017

Steven Schlozman

Steven Schlozman, M.D.

Steven Schlozman, M.D. is associate director of The MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, and a staff child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital. He is als...

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