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When Physical Stress Symptoms Start, Parents Need to Step In

Physical Stress Symptoms Deserve Our Attention

Every morning of the school week, Sue’s son complains of a headache. After taking him to an assortment of doctors, they suggest that he is suffering from stress. Young people, like adults, can experience overwhelming feelings of stress that manifest as physical symptoms.

How you can recognize symptoms and provide support for your teens through difficult times? Your Teen asked Brittany Barber Garcia, a pediatric psychologist, to help us.

Q: Are you seeing more with stress?

Garcia: We see 20 to 25 patients per week who are dealing with chronic pain due to stress, ranging from as young as six to 19. We are diagnosing more than we typically did 10 years ago for two reasons. First, we have greater awareness of mental health issues. Second, parenting has changed dramatically. Parents now are so much more focused and centered on child-rearing than previous generations were.

Kids see how much their parents are investing in them in terms of time, energy, and dollars. The level of that focus and expectation can become internalized as stress. We also see stress-related physical symptoms manifest more in girls than in boys.

Q: What physical symptoms do these young patients have?

Garcia: We see children with a variety of physical symptoms—headaches, stomachaches, abdominal pain, vomiting, dizziness. Usually these symptoms must be ongoing for at least a three- to six-month period before we would consider them persistent. A patient will likely see the pediatrician first. The doctor will order a series of diagnostic tests to eliminate other causes for these symptoms. Assuming that none are found, the patient may be referred to a mental health professional.

Q: Why are teens stressed? What are the sources of stress for these patients?

Garcia: Children as young as eight are worrying about grades and academic performance. Some even worry about how they will function in high school, even college. Many tweens are also figuring out who they are, building social relationships, dealing with peers and social interaction, and these can be significant sources of stress.

For many of the high school students we see, a lot of the causes of teenage stress is self-imposed. They have very big demands on themselves to get straights A’s, to ace their SATs, to get into the best college, to have the best possible career path. While these goals and aspirations can be motivating and positive for some teens, for others, they become overwhelming and can manifest in both emotional and physical symptoms of stress.

Q: How can parents help kids deal with these feelings?

Garcia: Model good coping behavior yourself. Kids respond to what their parents do, rather than what they say, so you yourself need to show them how you handle the stress in your life in a positive manner. Show them how you take care of yourself, mind, body, and spirit. Talk to them without judgment, and show your concern. Give them the words to label the feelings and emotions they are experiencing. Talk together about options, things that you and your child can do together to help, and encourage them to address these things preventatively together as they happen.

Q: How do you start the conversation with a teen?

Garcia: Sometimes you may have to help a teen who is really stressed out figure out when it’s time to take a step back. Look for these things: does he have any down time just to hang out, with no demands on him, or is he constantly busy, going from one activity or obligation to another? Does he use his down time in a way that is restorative and relaxing? Is he withdrawing from family or friends and spending more time alone? Is he more irritable than usual?

If you notice your child lacking chill time, becoming more irritable, or withdrawing from family and friends, reach out in a nonjudgmental, noncritical way and say, “I’ve noticed that you are very busy and things look very challenging for you right now, and I’m concerned.”

Tell him that while you understand he may have a lot of activities that he is passionate about, you want him to be a happy, healthy young adult with a good balance of activities and friends.

Q: How important is family time?

Garcia: One of the most protective behaviors is spending time together as a family. It can be as simple as family dinner two or three times per week. Or plan a family activity on the weekend. Alternate asking each family member what they would like to do, so everyone knows they will have a turn to pick an activity that interests them.

In your family time, have limits on the tech usage. Set boundaries so they aren’t texting while you are watching a movie together as a family. Demonstrate to them that you don’t need to be constantly connected 24/7 and can take a break by putting away your own phone when you are together. Children will follow their parents’ lead, so model for them that you value time with them, without technology.

Jane Parent

Jane Parent is senior editor of Your Teen.