Kids and Stress

I don't mind waiting for my hairstylist because it gives me a chance to catch up on what's being written about health and well-being in main stream magazines. Unfortunately, these publications often tend to just scratch the surface of important health issues leaving the average person thinking they have obtained some important information.

I inadvertently picked up a parenting magazine and flipped to the 'Ask the Doctor' section because there was a question from a concerned parent about her son’s teeth clenching. He was only seven and she noticed him doing it while watching TV and other times during the day. She had also heard him actually 'grinding' his teeth at night.

I was struck by the response from the doctor. Basically, his advice was only directed at the 'symptom' of teeth clenching and not about possible causes. The article focused on the physiological aspect saying, 'children's jaws are more flexible than adult’s, so clenching was not likely to do any structural damage'. It was suggested that teeth clenching was a habit children might outgrow and the last piece of advice was that a splint could be made to protect the teeth!

Parents need to know teeth clenching can also be a symptom of stress in children. The article totally overlooked the possibility that this child might be reacting to something stressful in his environment, some difficulty with school or a problem with his peers.

A child's response to stress can sometimes be difficult to spot. Nail biting, nightmares, headaches, stomachaches, bed wetting and teeth clenching can all be signs that a youngster is having some difficulty coping with his life. Being a child does not make one immune to stress. Sometimes as adults we can’t imagine what a child could be stressed about. The things that stress out adults are all taken care of for a child, right? But, as adults we must remember that one’s experience of life at any age, is real and all encompassing. In the face of difficulty, a child of seven does not react by reasoning, "Oh, this isn't a problem, because when I am twelve it won’t be this way".

Therefore, it is important to investigate when your child develops habits that point to 'system overload'. Some places to look are obvious like divorce, the birth of a brother or sister, moving to a new neighborhood or school or a major job change for either parent. Some not so obvious places to check are; unrealistic expectations by parents or teachers, too many extracurricular activities, not enough quality time with mom and dad, lack of a routine, not enough downtime, etc.

Look for recent changes in as many areas as you can, to find out what your child might be reacting to. Remember, what may seem insignificant to you can seem insurmountable to your child. Sometimes just being able to talk about the event or change can bring relief. If your child is very young, try using stories or drawings to give you child a way to express his/her feelings. Understanding, reassurance and normalizing what you child is feeling can go a long way toward helping your child become skilled at meeting life’s challenges.