Health & Psychology

When Should I worry about my Child’s Stress Levels?

Stressed out. Strung Out. Tentative. Shy. Obsessive. Worried. Anxious. Panicked. These are all ways that your child or teen may feel sometimes. Each of these is a normal part of life. In fact, they can be an especially typical part of life in an expat family. I say this because change, newness and having to navigate unexpected things are common triggers for anxiety. Additionally, friendship changes, as well as attending schools with different learning approaches are known to evoke stress in many young people. We ask our globally nomadic kids to be flexible and handle a significant amount of change. In the long run, this lifestyle has huge benefits for kids and teens. At the same time, it is reasonable to expect that they may experience a fair share of stress or worries that are distinct to third-culture-kid living. 

Fun fact: A little bit of anxiety can be good for kids and teens. Anxiety helps them get motivated to do well in school, sports, theater or any of their pursuits. It can add a competitive edge – and keeps them productive and crossing things off their lists.  It makes them conscientious friends. It helps them anticipate, organize and plan. 

Yet, there is clearly a point at which too much anxiety causes problems for kids and teens.  

After more than twenty years of working with kids, teens and parents I have worked with my fair share of kids and teens who needed specific support to help feel calmer and more at ease. There is a point at which healthy motivating stress becomes debilitating or maladaptive anxiety. 

Today my hope is to give parents an inside look at when your child may need specialist help to feel better.  In a nutshell it comes down to an issue of moderation and the ways in which the symptoms of anxiety are impacting a child’s daily life, sense of self, schoolwork, family relationships, friendships and safety. 

Here are 5 key signs that anxiety is impacting your child in a way that isn’t helpful for them

  1. They are worrying so much they cannot enjoy things they used to do. 
  2. They have habit behaviors (like skin picking, hair pulling, or frequent use of alcohol or other substances to reduce stress). 
  3. Their eating and sleeping change. Really anxious people often eat a lot less or a lot more than usual. And anxiety often leads to trouble falling or staying asleep. 

If your child is experiencing any of the above, it makes sense to reach out to a school counselor and/or therapist for support. This is especially true if your child experiences more than one of the above. 

  1. They are experiencing panic attacks (racing heart, racing thoughts, chest pain, uncontrollable crying or upset) that mean they miss out on social time or other enjoyable activities because they are worried that more panic attacks will happen.
  2. Sometimes mounting anxiety can lead to young people engaging in self-harming behaviors like scratching or cutting themselves. Occasionally, teens feel so overwhelmed by their stress and worries that they think about escaping the stress permanently.  

These last two indicators of anxiety can be more disruptive for kids or teens, and worrying for parents.  If your child is having panic attacks or is engaging in self-harm, or having thoughts about death or dying, it is recommended that you reach out swiftly to a therapist to do an assessment for you. It isn’t your job to determine how serious your kid’s anxiety is. When in doubt, this is a great time to call in an expert to help set up a safe space to talk to your child and to help the family make decisions about ways to support your child in feeling better. 

It can be helpful to ask yourself these questions:

Is my child missing out on activities and people they used to enjoy?

Are they spending tons of time talking about worrying about things they cannot control? In a wat that feels really obsessive?

Have they lost a lot, or gained a lot of weight?

Is my child complaining of trouble falling asleep, or frequent bad dreams?

Do they have nervous habits that seem to be getting worse?

Is my child extra tearful and irritable lately?

Are they drinking or using other substances frequently as a way “to take the edge off”?

Have you seen or heard that they have been scraping, scratching or cutting their arms or legs?

Has my child talked about not wanting to be here, or about dying, because they are so stressed out?

Although some of the things on this list are scary for parents, the really good news about anxiety is that it is highly treatable.  Talk therapy with specific goals and strategies  (depending on some elements of the anxiety) can make a huge difference in a young person’s well-being.  Good therapists will do a combination of individual therapy, parent sessions, and family sessions.  This combination helps parents and their children develop specific coping and support strategies so that the young person returns to a more balanced, calm, hopeful state. Don’t we all want that for our children?    

The good news is that there are an increasing number of therapists who specialize in supporting expatriate kids and families.  I always recommend that parents “Shop around” some and ask for introductory meetings with potential therapists.  A talented and committed therapist will appreciate that you are taking the time to ensure that they are a good match for your child and your family.  It is also important that in addition to a personality match, you will want to find a therapist who has specific expertise working with children or teens of the same age as your child. Finally it helps to make sure that the therapist has experience helping families assess for, and treat, anxiety. 

In closing, remember that a little bit of anxiety is often a good thing.  If you are unsure if “little bit” line has been crossed, that’s a great time to reach out for clarity and support.  Take care and be well.  

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