1 in 7 kids are suffering toxic levels of stress - and something needs to be done

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock 

Urgent action is needed to help the increasing number of Aussie kids suffering from stress, according to two leading children mental health organisations.

Stride and KidsXpress said figures reveal one in seven Australian children are exposed to toxic levels of stress due to issues such as divorce, domestic violence, bullying, loss and neglect.

KidsXpress CEO Margo Ward said stories of childhood trauma were far too common in Australia.

"It is estimated in an average Australian classroom of 25 students, at least five children will be experiencing unhealthy levels of stress because of a childhood trauma including parental substance addiction, abuse, neglect, loss, family violence and bereavement," Ms Ward said. 

"Not enough is being done to help these children. Too many people have adopted a 'wait and see' approach.

"If we leave it too long, the opportunities for healing are diminished. We simply cannot afford to wait any longer." 

Ms Ward said stress can affect anyone who feels overwhelmed - even children.  

"We can't eliminate stress, however there are ways to reduce and manage it," she said.

"Common causes of stress for young children include things such as separation anxiety from parents and as children get older, academic and social pressures can also create stress.

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"Changes, or life events that happen in your family, can create additional stress, such as an illness, loss of a family member or parental separation."

Stride CEO Dr Andrew Young said half of all adult mental health conditions emerge by the time a child turns 14-years-old.

"It doesn't need to be this way. There is clear evidence that early intervention for childhood mental health concerns is highly effective in reducing the long-term impact of childhood trauma or stress," Dr Young said.

"What we have to bear in mind is we are talking about traumatised and highly stressed children. It is a big human issue. We can do better for our kids. We must. 

"The evidence tells us that investing in the mental health and wellbeing of children is the best way we can reduce the burden of mental ill-health - both for children and families, and for our community and economy. The time for action is now." 

Know the signs 

Clinical psychologist and author Dr Sarah Hughes said it was vital parents know the signs of stress, as mental health issues were becoming relatively common place in Australian kids and teens.  

"Signs of stress will differ from child to child, but generally speaking changes to sleep, appetite, or behaviour – whether that be increased challenging behaviour, seeming more withdrawn, not wanting to go to school – are common warning signs," Dr Hughes said.

"In kids in particular, stress often presents quite physically, so regular headaches and stomach aches can be warning signs, and so can increased irritability, general moodiness, or changes to school performance as well."

How parents help their children deal with stress will depend on each individual situation, but what's most important is that it's taken seriously, regardless of the cause.     

"When viewed through adult eyes, it's easy to dismiss the stressors kids face as trivial, but stress is stress regardless of the cause, and your child's stress is just as valid as yours – so take action," she said. 

"Look at what you can do to take the pressure off in the short-term – have a break from homework and afterschool activities for a few days for example and partake in a bit of rest and relaxation instead."

But also look for longer-term solutions as well. 

Seek help

"If your child's stressed at school, look at what needs to be different, whether that be tutoring, extra support from teachers, or a more permanent reduction in a busy after school schedule," she said.

"If they're struggling with conflict at home, look at what you can do differently to protect them from this, and if friendship challenges or bullying is the issue, look at possible solutions, and that might mean getting advice and support from the school. 

"And if that doesn't work, or if you don't know where to start, consider seeing a psychologist. They'll be better placed to give you more specific advice and can help your child develop the skills they need to cope."