Most adults think of their childhood as the happiest time of their life. But we forget too quickly that being a child – even a very young one – can be stressful.
Stress, of course, can have a direct effect on mood, which may explain why many experts believe it can lead to depression. So is it any surprise that studies show almost 1 in 4 young people will experience depression before they’re 19 years old?
Main causes of stress in children include:
Schoolwork and homework
Many children feel under pressure to do well at school. And for some, all the subjects they have to learn during the day – plus the homework they have to do in the evening – can seem overwhelming. It can often mean they don’t have enough free time to play or do other fun things. And when children fall behind with their schoolwork, it can lead to stress.
Exams and stress put children and teenagers under pressure. A recent report by Childline revealed the service delivered more than 3,000 counselling sessions on exam stress during 2016 - 2017, which is 11% higher than the previous 2 years.
Most likely to be asking for help about exam stress were those aged 12 - 15. Some of the things children are worried about include not wanting to disappoint their parents, fear of failure and general pressures linked to academic achievement. As a result, young people contacting Childline said exam stress can not only lead to depression but also anxiety, panic attacks and low self-esteem.
When children start a new school, making friends can put them under pressure. Those who don’t make friends easily may also feel isolated. Children also worry when they argue and fall out with their friends.
Because making friends can be difficult, many children feel under pressure to fit in – and sometimes, this means they do things they may not feel comfortable with.
There aren’t any official statistics about children who are bullied. But during 2016/2017 there were more than 24,000 Childline counselling sessions with children about bullying. And according to the NSPCC, studies suggest there are more than 16,000 young people are absent from school due to bullying.
As a parent, there are certain things you can look out for that may suggest your child is having a problem with bullying. These include:
- Becoming withdrawn, nervous and losing confidence
- Performing badly at school
- Not wanting to go to school (for instance, pretending to be ill)
- Losing personal belongings (or personal belongings becoming damaged)
- Not eating or sleeping well
- Having unexplained injuries such as bruises
It’s impossible to keep disturbing news about things like war, natural disasters and terrorist atrocities from children these days. As a result, some children may worry about their safety as well as that of their parents, family members and friends.
Depression in children – what to look out for
High stress levels caused by any of the above can lead to depression in children, as can events such as divorce, bereavement or moving house/school. Often depression can be the result of more than 1 thing. But spotting the signs as early as possible may help prevent depression becoming a long-term issue. Here are some of the things you should look out for:
- Persistent low mood
- Permanent irritability
- Lack of energy
- Having little to nor interest in things they used to enjoy
- Inability to concentrate
- Lack of confidence
- Avoiding mixing with friends and family
- Sleeping more or less than usual
- Not having much of an appetite or overeating
According to the NHS, some children also have physical symptoms such as headaches and stomach aches when they’re depressed.
What can you do?
If you suspect your child is under a lot of stress, here are some of the things you can do that may help:
Make time for them
All parents are busy these days, but it’s important to spend more time than usual with your children if you think they’re worried about something. Make yourself available for fun activities or just being in the same room as them. Ask them about their day and show an interest in things that are important to them. But try to avoid forcing them to talk about their worries – they’ll open up when they feel comfortable talking about it.
Encourage healthy sleep
Getting the right amount of sleep and rest can help children become more resilient to stress. Children need different amounts of sleep at different ages – find out how many hours your children need by visiting NHS Choices.
Feed them healthy food
Good nutrition is also essential if you want to boost your child’s coping skills. Try to make sure they’re eating at least 5 portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables every day. If your children are resistant to eating fruit and veg, there are lots of ways to get them into their diet (these tips by NHS Choices may help).
Make stress normal
It may be useful to remind your children that some level of stress is perfectly normal in life, and that everyone is affected by it and has to find ways of dealing with it. Explaining that it’s okay to feel what they’re feeling could give them the confidence they need to manage their stress levels. If it helps, try talking about times when you’ve been stressed, and explain how you tackled it.
Keep them active
Physical activity can help children and adults alike manage stress, so make sure your children are getting plenty of exercise. Other things you could try with them include relaxation techniques and even things like breathing exercises. Also try leading by example – if you use these methods to manage your own stress levels, your children are more likely to follow in your footsteps.
Meanwhile, if you think your child may be depressed, don’t try to handle it on your own – make an appointment for them to see their GP. Your child’s doctor can refer them to your local child and adolescent mental health service (CAMHS) for specialist help. These services can provide access to a team of experts, including psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, nurses, support workers, occupational therapists and psychological therapists.
We also have a range of emotional support services for ICAEW members and their families, including dependent children up to the age of 25. Whatever’s worrying you, we’re here to listen and to help. Our services are free, confidential and available 24 hours a day.