A healthy amount of short-term stress could help children and teens, like adults, to focus on and reach their goals. However, chronic stress has never been good for anyone. It can lead to long-term mental and physical health problems, including anxiety and depression, as well as high blood pressure, a weaker immune system, obesity and heart disease.
The sources and outcomes of stress may not always be the same for children and teens compared to adults. School, tension at home, big life changes, friends and relationships, and even social issues in the news, may contribute to stress in young people.
However, many of the healthy ways in which adults may manage stress can be adapted to help young people.
Stress may leave young people feeling overwhelmed. Instead of being proactive, stress may lead young people to procrastinate, or forget or even neglect their responsibilities, such as homework, studying for a test or chores.
Help your child to find a healthy balance between schoolwork, physical activities and rest time. Create a daily schedule together to help reduce feelings of being overwhelmed. Place it somewhere where everyone can see it.
Physical activities could include play, exercise or sport (dependent on COVID-19 safety precautions). Rest time need not just be lounging in front of the TV, but could include relaxing creative activities such as arts, crafts, music or even reading. Also, don’t forget that all children are different, so some may need more rest than others.
Physical activity is an important stress reliever. Aerobic exercise particularly helps to reduce stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, and increase ‘feel good’ chemicals, such as endorphins.
Young people aged 6 to 17 years should be physically active for about 60 minutes every day. Encourage outside running games like tag, swimming or water workouts (when it’s warm enough), cycling, or joining you on a daily brisk walk, for example. Encourage participation in sports at school too, dependent on COVID-19 safety precautions, of course.
Our bodies naturally produce vitamin D when we are directly exposed to sunlight. It helps to regulate mood and improve the symptoms of depression, including fatigue, social withdrawal and feelings of hopelessness.
Vitamin D is also essential for normal bone growth and development, as well as a healthy immune system. It also helps to regulate calcium and phosphorus absorption.
Make sure that your child spends at least 10 to 30 minutes of their play or rest time outdoors to get enough of this ‘sunshine vitamin’. The amount of time spent in direct sunlight depends on the sensitivity of your child’s skin. It’s important to remember to apply sunscreen before they start to burn.
What we eat can play a large part in helping us to cope with stress and the anxiety we feel as a result. Eating too little or too much are often reactions to stress, therefore, make sure that your child doesn’t skip any meals or overindulge in unhealthy snacks.
Avoid processed and refined sugary drinks and foods. Also limit or avoid caffeine to curb dehydration, anxiety and sleep interference.
Make sure that your child drinks plenty of water and include complex carbohydrates, such as whole-grain breads and cereals, at meal and snack times. Complex carbs may help to increase serotonin, a mood-boosting hormone. Also include salmon or tuna, as well as fresh fruit and vegetables in their diet. These foods contain nutrients that help the body to metabolise and use serotonin efficiently, which helps to boost overall feelings of wellbeing.
Stress may leave young people feeling irritable or even short-tempered. Other behavioural changes may also become evident, such as fatigue or anti-social behaviour. Create a safe environment where your child feels comfortable to discuss their stress and/or problems with you. Talking, or even writing, doesn’t only give young people a platform to express themselves, but may help them to put things into perspective and find solutions.
It’s not always the easiest thing to do, but help your child to focus on the positive. For example, instead of worrying about failing a subject, help them to be proud of what they have already achieved. Help them then to focus on the steps they could take to succeed again. This may help to calm anxious minds as they focus on the process rather than on the goal, which may seem overwhelming.
Like adults, when young people feel stressed, they may have trouble falling asleep, sleep more than usual or feel tired all the time. A bedtime routine, fixed bedtime and conditions conducive to sleep, such as a quiet, cool environment, should help.
Children aged 3 to 5 years need 10 to 13 hours of sleep per night, while 6 to 12 years old should get between 9 and 12 hours of sleep per night, and teens should get 8 to 10 hours.
To help young people fall asleep quicker and get a good night’s rest, discourage the use of screens during the hour before bedtime. A screen may stimulate your child’s mind, or they may be tempted to chat to friends or play games. Make sure that all devices are left outside their bedroom so that notifications and calls do not disturb their sleep.
If possible, activate the blue light filter on any devices used. Blue light may suppress melatonin, a hormone which helps to control the sleep-wake cycle.
Bestmed can help too
Bestmed Medical Scheme offers a free wellness programme to all beneficiaries across all plans, including children and teens. An adult beneficiary need only complete a free health assessment at a participating network pharmacy to unlock the following Bestmed Tempo wellness programme benefits for their child dependants:
Bestmed has also partnered with the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) to offer its beneficiaries a free 24-hour mental health helpline to support those who experience mental health issues by managing its effects, providing additional support and improving quality of life. Your child may also find this Bestmed Tempo wellness programme benefit helpful to manage stress. Contact SADAG via: