Stress Facts for South Asian Children and Teens

As we near the end of National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week for 2011, it is important that parents, teachers and other adults to be able to understand the importance of treating mental health symptoms in children. Just as you would take your child to the doctor if his headache won’t go away, caretakers should see a pediatrician or mental health consultant if they notice signs of emotional distress.

Children do not outgrow emotional health symptoms and the symptoms are not a phase that will pass. In fact without early intervention, children grow up with inappropriate and unhealthy coping strategies which exacerbate the symptoms into adulthood.

child stressFor South Asian children, the most common emotional health concern is stress. Just as children with diabetes are at risk for the same illnesses as adults with diabetes, the same is true for chronic stress. Children who are repeatedly under stressful circumstances are at higher risk, just like adults, for becoming overweight, lowered immunity, developing depression, experiencing gastrointestinal problems, cardiovascular issues and diabetes. In addition, chronic stress can cause children as young as 8 or 9 years of age to contemplate or attempt suicide. In fact, India is one of the leading countries for suicide in children under the age of 15.

The most common sources of South Asian children and teens are:

Academic pressure. Most often parents expect children to perform at a certain standard (e.g. Receiving a B+ is unacceptable) or to be good at subjects that the child is naturally weak in. Often, South Asian parents will focus only on the mistakes the child made and skip over the successes, which lowers the child’s self-esteem and adds to the child’s stress. Because of the collectivistic nature of South Asian culture, children feel they are disappointing their parents by not meeting unreasonable expectations, adding to their stress. South Asian parents inadvertently send messages to children that without success in a limited number of subjects, majors or careers they have failed. This rigidity in the definition of success continues to add to the stress level of children from as young as 8 years old.

Acculturation stress. South Asian children struggle to balance their home culture and the dominant culture where they reside. Parents often don’t know the nuances and intricacies of growing up in a different country than their own so children feel alone and almost as if they have no mentor to look up to when it comes to daily life outside of the home. Knowing how to honor the family’s traditions while still blending in with non South Asians becomes a source of much stress for young children and the reason for much rebellion in the teenage years.

Younger children, especially, may have a hard time verbalizing their feelings of stress, so it is important as a caretaker, teacher, coach, or any other adult in a child’s life to be able to identify the signs of chronic stress. Accordingly, appropriate life changes can be made and treatment can be given if necessary.

Here are the common signs of stress in a child or teenager:

Sudden increase in moodiness

Sudden withdrawal from activities that the child previously enjoyed

Changes in sleeping patterns

Expressing worries repeatedly

Increased symptoms of anxiety, especially in relation to specific activities (e.g. homework, soccer practice, etc.)

Changes in eating patterns

Displaying fearful reactions/startling more quickly

Abandoning long-time friendships

Excessive hostility toward family members (especially for teens)

Significant avoidance of parents

Increased physical symptoms with now physical cause

Increased symptoms of depression

Sudden change in academic performance (usually negative)

Increased instances of lying

Increased rigidity in thinking (e.g. I must do well on my 5th grade STAR test otherwise I will not go to a good college.)

Loss of “child-ness” or innocence/acting more adult like (e.g. choosing responsibilities over playtime especially for young children, etc. is of concern)

What can you do if you notice any of these symptoms?

Talk to others. Be in contact with your child’s teacher, coach, and other friends. See what they have to see about how your child is behaving. Do they notice the same changes? This will help you get a better sense of your child’s overall situation.

Listen to your child. Talk to your child when he/she is least stressed. For younger children especially it can help to do this when they have their hands busy such as when they are coloring or building something. Ask them how they’ve been feeling and let them talk without interruption. Listen for words such as “worried” “confused” “annoyed” “angry” “mad”, etc. Children and teens often don’t know how to identify stress and may use these commonly understood terms to explain how they feel.

Do not judge. Ask clarifying questions to understand why they think and feel the way they do but don’t tell them how to feel. Before you guide them, you should know where they are in the moment.

Be open and prioritize. If your child is telling you that violin lessons or the extra math class is stressing them, be open to the idea that their lifestyle has to change. Identify how important it really is that your child attend these extracurricular activities and at what cost should this be done.

Increase playtime. Children and teens alike need time to decompress and the best way they do that is to engage in creative play. For teens this may look more like drawing, writing, playing group sports, etc.

Teach age-appropriate stress management techniques. Model for your child different ways to manage stress. When they see you doing it effectively, they are more likely to incorporate it into their life. Research has shown that the more successful a child or teen is at identifying his/her emotions and managing them on their own appropriately, the more success they will see as young adults professionally, socially and emotionally.

Show they you value them. Often the stress for children and teens come from feeling undervalued or unimportant because they mistakenly assume that outside factors determine how good of a person they are. For example, they will value themselves based on how successful they are at school or how many friends they have, etc. Show them that their true value comes from what kind of person they are and reinforce that with message throughout the day. Appreciate your child as an individual that sets him/her apart from your other children and their peers.

Take a moment this weekend and talk to your child or teen about stress. Find out what worries them and learn how they have managed it so far. Having this conversation could be the beginning to a much healthier life for your child or teen!

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