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5 silent signs that suggest your child is stressed out

Our kids may not be okay. 

The coronavirus pandemic has forced parents around the world to focus on balancing careers, home lives, and intimate relationships amid homeschooling, resource shortages, lockdown restrictions, and so many more sanity-bending challenges. 

While we parents have been struggling with these new and unprecedented challenges, our children have been watching us—and they’re stressed.

They may not be having more tantrums than normal (though many certainly are), and they may not be able to voice their specific concerns, yet they are providing us with silent signs of stress resulting from the quarantine and all the uncertainties and nearly incomprehensible changes in their lives. 

Here are several silent signs of stress that your child may be exhibiting as well as information regarding what you can do to help them.

Stomach Pain 

Whether we’re responding to a physical danger (like an oncoming car) or a psychosocial one (such as the shelter-in-place order), the same physiological system is activated in our minds and bodies, says Nina Kaiser, a licensed psychologist in San Francisco. 

For example, your child may have a stomach ache because his body has been redirecting resources and energy to his extremities in an effort to prepare for danger. This is why digestion becomes impaired in situations of distress.

“In the context of the current coronavirus pandemic, it’s probably reasonable to assume that somatic symptoms are linked to stress,” Kaiser explains.

In this situation, you can talk with your child about the brain-body connection and the way that stress or worries can impact the body.

“Work with kids to pay attention to somatic symptoms and to get curious about the impact of self-care or emotion regulation strategies on the intensity or duration of physical symptomatology.”  

Reduced Elimination 

If your child isn’t eliminating as much as normal, it’s a common sign that she’s anxious, says Abigail Schlesinger, chief of the Behavioral Science Division at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. To rule out a physical illness, first check to see if your child has a fever, if she looks ill, if she’s unable to eat, or if she’s lethargic.

But remember that how parents respond to physical complaints can impact the overall course of a complaint, regardless of cause. 

“If you think that anxiety or worry is causing a physical complaint or making one worse, it is a reasonable approach to first understand the emotion associated with that feeling,” Schlesinger notes.

She suggests asking your child where it hurts, and if she’s also worried or scared about anything. Many younger children may be sad, angered, or annoyed that they can’t play with friends right now—and these are important emotions to recognize. “You can then move with them to what they can do to help with the physical pain, as well as the cause of the emotional pain.”

Shortness of Breath 

Ever have a panic attack? This is a child’s version, explains James Olson, pediatrician with Kids’ Health Partners in Skokie, Ill.

“More intense anxiety may cause feelings of shortness of breath, palpitations, or abnormally heightened attention to normal body processes—noticing normal intestinal activity, normal changes in heart rate, swallowing—that are then interpreted as abnormal and signs of disease.”

Stress can affect normal physiologic functions, and can cause real physical changes resulting in symptoms. 

Leg Pain 

This is another scary yet common symptom of silent stress in children, says Jay Lovenheim, a pediatrician with Lovenheim Pediatrics in West Orange, New Jersey. Bodies contain numerous nerve pathways, and stress and anxiety may trigger some of those pathways, causing physical pain. Before assuming the pain is strictly related to stress, ask your child to run or to move. If he’s able to do this, then the pain is most likely from anxiety or stress.

This doesn’t mean you should dismiss your child’s ailments, however. “Instead, use positive reinforcement and remind them that they can fight through it,” Lovenheim emphasizes.

“It’s important as parents that we are not overly dismissive of our children’s functional pain, but, at the same time, we do not want to feed the anxiety.” 

Mouth Ulcers, aka canker sores 

If you spot these popping up more frequently in your child’s mouth these days, you may have the coronavirus to thank. It’s not because your child is sick: it’s most likely that he’s hiding his stress.

“Parenting even very young children for upcoming known changes, discussing the change and providing simple, developmentally appropriate coping strategies—even for little ones—can help as well,” notes Christina Johns, senior medical advisor for PM Pediatrics in Lake Success, New York.

“Scripting out what will happen and the expected reaction gives children a framework for how to operate as comfortably as they can, thereby decreasing stress and ultimately its physical symptoms.”

Follow Up

If your child is experiencing any of these or other symptoms of stress or illness during this difficult time, it’s best to consult your healthcare provider. If you are nervous about attending in-person consults, telehealth appointments are ideal ways in which to access the health care services that you and your family need to stay healthy. 

Danielle Braff
Danielle Braff is a former magazine editor and newspaper reporter turned award-winning freelance writer specializing in lifestyle, health, business, shopping, parenting and travel writing. Her articles have appeared in dozens of magazines and newspapers including the Chicago Tribune, Crain’s Chicago Business, Women’s Health, Self, Woman’s Day, Men’s Health, Budget Travel, Health, Marie Claire, New York Newsday, Chicago Sun-Times, Better Homes and Gardens, Time Out New York Kids, and Every Day with Rachel Ray. Danielle is also the Chicago correspondent for Afar magazine, and she writes its weekly column about what to do in and around Chicago.