Stress in children can impact both their health and behaviour
Elevated stress caused by isolation from loved ones, cultural adjustments, the school environment, the constant noise of the online world, or the current COVID-19 situation can impact our health and how we react to everyday situations. So, what should you be aware of when it comes to stress in children? And what do you need to know about managing the issue?
Clinical Psychologist and Founder of Psych Connect DR SANVEEN KANG answers our questions and shares how she helps families manage mental health issues of this kind.
What impact does living in a stressful environment have on children?
When any child is growing up, they face uncertainty and adversity, both of which can cause stress – this can include things that we as adults might not pick up on. Everyone needs a certain amount of anxiety to perform well; yet, if children are chronically stressed, it means their stress levels remain perpetually high. When this happens for an extended period of time, it can have long-term effects.
What effect can this stress have on children?
Heightened stress responses impact the body. When young people go through what are known as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), it results in the activation of the “fight, flight or freeze” response, and the release of adrenaline and cortisol. In the long term, we start to see the systemic response of the body to these stress hormones. Having an elevated level of stress over time is related to medical illnesses such as heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, cancer and even unhealthy behavioural coping mechanisms.
So, how do you help children and families?
We help find ways to cope with life’s challenges through psychological therapy. This focuses on understanding what factors led to the current experiences, and learning skills to navigate them. The aim of therapy is to enable people to cope with adversities and to assert a sense of control over their lives.
Most of our clinicians are trained in more than one therapy modality; they select a modality based on their client’s individual needs. For example, therapy is not limited to talking; we can also work with children using movement, play and art.
Can you share some examples of how you’ve helped children?
We had an 11-year-old girl referred to us who was having difficulties focusing at school and completing academic tasks. She was diagnosed with ADHD at age six, and had become non-compliant with medication over the years.
After the initial consultation and re-assessment, we found that while she didn’t meet the criteria for ADHD, she did have executive functioning and emotional difficulties. This led to further investigations where we discovered that her mother had had a stressful pregnancy and inter-generational trauma. We then focused therapy on supporting the child’s mother and school, by creating a safe and supportive environment for the child.
The girl was taken off medications. Both her behaviour and her academic performance naturally improved as she became emotionally regulated, and her living environment became more supportive rather than restrictive.
Another case was a boy who was referred for an assessment of sensory processing disorder, as he’d refused to have a haircut for 18 months. Through investigation, we found that he was having challenges with coping with the family’s relocation to Singapore two years ago. Not having a haircut was the one way he attempted to assert control over his life.
Therapy focused on addressing the emotions he felt and facilitating a conversation between him and his parents. He was seven years old at the time, and soon after had a pretty cool haircut, much to his parent’s relief!
What are some tell-tale signs for children suffering from mental stress?
Notice if your child presents any learning, emotional and behavioural challenges. For example, you might observe regression in milestones, or increased emotional or behavioural outbursts.
Identifying ACEs is a complex process requiring professional input – so, don’t be daunted to seek help!
What advice would you give to parents who are concerned about their children?
Be sensitive to their emotions and coping strategies. Recognise that each individual has a different threshold for coping with emotional stress. When in doubt, it’s essential that parents are open to consulting with a psychologist – a psychologist trained in assessments will be able to identify the underlying reason for the behaviours and recommend therapy if it’s required.
How does Psych Connect make a difference?
Deeply rooted in our values is the importance of creating a respectful and safe place where individuals, regardless of age, feel reassured and supported in their own personal therapeutic journey.
Psych Connect therapists feel passionate toward partnering with our clients on their journey of emotional and personal growth. Our clients are a testament to what humans can achieve. At the root of all human interactions is the power of hope, appreciation of compassion and need for love and acceptance. When our clients feel supported through therapy, their potential is limitless.
Psych Connect provides comprehensive psychological testing and therapy for children as young as two years of age, up to early adult years, in areas of mental health that include the following:
- Varied types of anxiety
- Selective mutism
- Emotional regulation
- Sleep problems
- Gender identity issues
- Self-injurious behaviours
- Specific phobias
- Attachment disorders
- Grief and adjustment disorder
- Academic challenges
- Disordered eating patterns
- Behavioural and social challenges
- Functional gastrointestinal disorders
Dr Kang is registered with the Singapore Register of Psychologists (SRP) and Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA), and is approved as a clinical supervisor by both. If your family needs support with any mental health concerns, access the free resources at psychconnect.sg or call the clinic at 6493 0244.
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