Today, Wednesday 2nd November, marks Stress Awareness Day.
We all know the potentially devasting effects too much stress can have on our mental and physical health, and so today marks a reminder of the importance of managing our stress levels so that we can act before it becomes a problem.
As Rethink.org states ‘we all know what it is like to feel stressed and being under pressure is a normal part of life. But becoming overwhelmed by stress can lead to mental health problems or make existing problems worse.’
Children and teenagers can be impacted by stress in several ways, and it can involve:
- Positive Stress. It might come as a surprise to hear, but a small amount of stress is healthy, such as before an exam, a driving test or other important event. This type of short-term helps us to perform at our best and signals to our brain to ‘get ready.’
- Life Event Stress. Any change in life brings about an amount of stress for all of us. For children, this might involve changing school, moving house or family relationship breakdowns. It is important that children learn strategies to cope with life’s inevitable ups and downs so that they can develop the resilience needed to remain mentally healthy despite these challenges.
- Chronic Stress. This stress is the unhealthiest for our bodies to cope with and is characterised by stress that persists for weeks or months at a time. Ongoing family problems, grief, or life upheavals can lead children and teenagers to experience chronic stress.
- Traumatic Stress. This type of stress occurs after a very traumatic incident that can be intense and sudden in nature. This type of stress can lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (see our last blog for more about PTSD).
Too little stress in our lives can cause feelings of depression and demotivation, whilst too much can create a whole host of negative effects on our body and our mental health and wellbeing, such as:
- disturbed sleep
- depression (Yes too much stress can cause this too!)
- memory loss and brain fatigue
- skin conditions
- high blood pressure
- heart disease
- Gastrointestinal problems, such as IBS
- And the list goes on!
We can see then that striving to find a balance is so important for us as parents, and for the health and well-being of our children too.
So, to better understand how to combat its negative effects, let’s take a look at how stress is created in the brain:
- When our brain perceives a stressful event, it activates the ‘fight or flight’ system to help us deal with the situation, a primitive part of our brain that exists deep within our brain stem. The types of stressors our ancestors would have faced would have been real life-or-death scenarios – protecting themselves from other tribesmen or wild animals or hunting for enough food to eat. Whilst our modern-day stresses are quite different, such as the bank statement arriving, having a deadline to meet, or an exam to prepare for, the physiological response is the same.
- Our bodies are flooded with stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. This is a primitive response to stress that would have helped our ancestors to flee quickly from danger or to prepare their bodies to fight. Adrenaline triggers responses in the body which causes our heart rate to increase and more blood flow to be redirected to our limbs. This response would have been super helpful when running from a wild animal but not so helpful for modern-day worries. Movement (just like in primitive times) helps our bodies to counteract the effects of this adrenaline rush and is one of the reasons why exercise is so helpful in managing stress. It is the effects of the unspent adrenaline in our bodies that can build up and cause the negative effects we associate with stress.
How do the Youth Fairies help children and teenagers understand the effects of stress?
The Youth Fairies help children and young people understand the negative effects of stress using the analogy of a stress or worry bucket.
As children go about their day, they fill their bucket with different worries or negative thoughts. This could be:
- worrying about an upcoming exam
- feeling there are not enough hours to cram in all that revision they need to do
- falling out with a friend
- worrying about events at home
- or simply wondering what everyone will think of their new hairstyle.
There are so many stressors for our young people and with more and more pressure to achieve well and fit in, it’s little wonder why so many of our young people’s buckets fill up pretty quickly! As adults, our stresses might be somewhat different, but we have worry buckets too all the same.
And just like any bucket, the more that goes in, the more the bucket overflows. When that worry bucket becomes too full, we see the effects of stress and this can manifest in all sorts of ways – from anger outbursts, irritability, poor sleep, to anxiety, or becoming more withdrawn. Our capacity to think clearly and rationally takes a nose-dive and we get caught in the grips of our ‘fight or flight’ brain.
Whilst our buckets are never completely empty, there are steps we can take to help prevent our children from filling their buckets and help combat the negative effects of stress:
- Provide extra support and stability. This might involve being there to talk to your child or just listening – whatever feels right to them. Routines are also an important part of maintaining healthy stress levels. When other life events feel out of control, it is important children and teenagers can anchor themselves to things that remain constant. For example, this might be a consistent bedtime routine or providing stability in the form of relationships and the interactions they have with loved ones.
- Support your child in developing good sleep hygiene. We all know a good night’s sleep is great for our well-being but there are so many factors that can affect the quality of sleep we have. Encouraging your child to turn off all blue light devices at least an hour before bedtime and instead building in a relaxing routine in the lead-up to sleep can help to signal to our brain that it is time to relax. Our brain goes through a vital ‘clearing out’ process whilst we sleep, particularly during REM sleep, the phase where we dream. This process literally empties our children’s buckets whilst they sleep, so they wake up refreshed and ready for a new day. The relaxation audio that all Youth Fairies provide to the children we work with brilliantly supports this process too.
- Teach your child ways to cope. Remember, a little bit of short-term positive is good for us and enables us to learn coping strategies to deal with more challenging life events. Children are often faced with a little short-term positive stress when they are faced with responsibility. For example, this might include getting their bag ready for school or being responsible for feeding the pet in the morning. If your child is struggling to do these things for themselves, try to resist the temptation to rescue them and do it for them. Situations like this provide an excellent opportunity to teach children how to navigate a small issue that feels stressful to them and will help them to build resilience to tackle those challenges that will inevitably come their way!
- Encourage your child to find relaxing activities they enjoy. Whether it’s colouring, listening to music, reading a book, or having a bubble bath, activities like these are great for building into your child’s day. There are also lots of child-friendly apps on the market that introduce mindfulness and relaxation to children. There are so many benefits of relaxation: it promotes positive thinking, concentration, and memory and lowers our heart rate and blood pressure too. If your child is regularly struggling with feelings of stress, helping them to create a ‘self-soothe’ box can be very therapeutic. Encourage them to fill it with items that make them feel relaxed so that, in the moments where stress is at its highest and its hard to think of things that might help, they have their box to draw upon.
- Support your child to develop a more positive mindset. Have you ever had one of those days where from the moment you get out of bed everything seems to go wrong? On days like this, it can be so easy to tell ourselves things like ‘today is a bad day’ or ask ‘what’s going to go wrong next?’ By thinking like this, not only are we filling up our stress bucket but we are creating the mindset where even if something good does happen, we won’t notice it because we are so focused on all the things that are going wrong! When your child is having a day like this, help them to notice the good things in their day and spend a few minutes discussing ‘what’s been good?’ As the saying goes, ‘not every day is good but there is something good in every day.’
- Be a positive role model. It is normal to feel stress from time to time, and as parents, this might be a feeling you are all too familiar with! Remember though, your child is looking to you to see how best to cope with things when their life feels stressful. Consider how your child might perceive your response to stress – is it a healthy response that you would want your child to develop too? Never underestimate your power to influence this and how your actions often say so much more than your words.
If stress is a concern for you or your child right now and you would like further information, tips and guidance, there is a wealth of information at:
You can also contact your nearest therapist at The Youth Fairy for further help for your child at: