For many kids, life isn’t all fun and games — it’s filled with stress that often feels too big to carry.
Dr. Alice Sterling Honig, Professor Emerita of child development at Syracuse University, says it’s made worse when adults don’t take that stress seriously.
“Adults ridicule the stresses of little kids,” she said in a phone interview. “What seems like a little stress to a grown-up can be a big stress to a child.”
Here are some of the most common stressors that kids report.
1. Not being able to succeed in school
Most adults assume kids are stressed out by school because there’s too much homework, but oftentimes it’s because they don’t have the skills they need to learn.
“A lot of parents, even in two parent families, they don’t talk to their children. They don’t teach them rhymes. I’ve seen children at 8 or 9 who don’t know rhymes yet, but they’re in families that are considered normative,” Honig said. “What I’m seeing is people are very busy and they don’t talk to their kids about things they should be learning about. So when kids get to school, there’s stress and tension.”
She said parents are often so busy nowadays that they don’t read to their children or go over basic math or the alphabet. This causes children to fall behind in school, because it’s hard for teachers to get an entire class of 25 or 30 students all caught up.
2. Negative body images
Constant exposure to airbrushed and Photoshopped images of celebrities can cause even young children to become overly worried about their own body image, Honig said.
“We now have data that 5-year-old little girls are worried that they’re getting fat,” she said. “Little kids are saying they should go on a diet because they don’t look like the president’s wife or a TV star.”
Anxious thoughts about body weight and appearance can be made worse when children hear adults talk about their own negative body image. A 2005 report by Common Sense Media found that 5 to 8-year-old girls were more likely to struggle with a positive body image if their moms expressed unhappiness about their bodies.
“That’s a very common thing where you have this little girl sitting in the background watching, and she probably thinks you look gorgeous, but then it’s sort of, ‘Well, that’s my mom, and what does that mean for me?'” Ana Homayoun, author of “The Myth of the Perfect Girl,” told CNN.
3. Being compared to other kids
One of the biggest stressors for kids is not feeling like they measure up to other children, especially when they’re compared publicly.
“I had one child whose teacher expected them to run laps, but he struggled with running,” Honig said. “He just felt embarrassed and ashamed all the time because he couldn’t do what other kids could do.”
Kids can still be challenged to push themselves, but the marker of success shouldn’t be in comparison to other kids. It should be focused on progress and individual goals.
“Measuring one kid against the other makes kids feel embarrassed,” Honig said. “It should be what the individual can do, not what who can beat you at what.”
It can also be stressful for kids to be compared to siblings who have different skills or interests. One child may be talented at drawing, but if a parent is constantly comparing them to a sibling who can sing a beautiful song, that child begins to feel inadequate.
“We need to be more individually appreciate of the gifts that every single child has. Each parent has to look for the gifts of their child,” Honig said. “Maybe your child isn’t so good in arithmetic, but they have the dexterity and fine motor skills to cook with mom and bake cookies.”
4. Not being taken seriously by adults
One of the biggest stressors for kids is having adults in their lives who dismiss them.
For example, moving to a new city can seem like no big deal to an adult, but leaving friends behind can be very crushing to kids, Honig said. Casting off their worries with comments like “you’ll make new friends” or “you can call your friends on the phone after we move” doesn’t always help the crushing feeling such a big change can cause.
Simply not being trusted by a parent or teacher can also cause stress. “Suppose you don’t believe a child when she says she didn’t do something naughty,” Honig said. “The child learns not to trust themselves and not to trust the adult ‘who never believes me.'”
“When kids don’t feel that they can trust grown-ups, when they have problems later on, are they going to tell the grownup what the problem is?” Honig said. Kids and teenagers are less likely to report bullying, harassment and even sexual assault when they don’t feel like a parent, teacher or other adult will do anything about it.
Parents should take their child’s stress seriously, Honig said, because overwhelming stress can affect a child’s hippocampus, where memories are stored.
“If you have your memory-place distressed, you can’t learn well in school,” she said. “We now know from research that kids who are treated harshly or neglected have the highest risks of being stressed and abusive later on and doing things we wish they would not.”
To help this, Honig suggests that parents take time to talk with their children individually and actively listen to them when they talk about their worries, fears and angry feelings.
“Don’t blow it up, but you should listen to them on their feelings. Tell them you love them and see if you can brainstorm things that might be helpful,” Honig said. “Even if you can’t figure out what you think might (help), at least you can say, ‘Boy, that was lousy. It must have felt lousy for you.’ And then you’re doing what we call active, reflective listening. That’s one of the most healing things you can do for a friend, a child or a school mate.
“It makes a child feel understood.”