Imagine sitting in class on the day of a big math test. Everyone in the room feels a little nervous. But most of the kids around you have taken tests and done OK. They figure they’ll survive this time around. So they get down to work.
But not you, the kid with learning and attention issues. You’re dizzy and panicked. You’ve struggled all year, and you can’t make sense of even the first question on this test. You raise your hand, ask to go to the nurse and call home feeling sick. Again.
What Is Stress?
Stress is a fact of life for everyone. It is our body’s “fight or flight” response to the many challenges the world throws our way. When stress strikes, our heart beats faster. Our palms sweat. Our system is ready for action.
Stress can be good. It can pump us up and allow us to take on the challenge in front of us. Many children might feel stress about an exam. And most can figure out how to conquer that challenge. They know how good it feels to succeed and they want to “take it on.”
Stress can also be bad. That happens when we’re overwhelmed by our challenges. Or perhaps we don’t know how to cope and can’t do our best work.
Children with learning and attention issues often deal with this kind of stress. Unlike their peers, they may not have a strong track record of success. Instead of feeling excited about something new, like a big test or a birthday party, children with learning and attention issues may panic and act out. Or they may shut down altogether. They see a new challenge as one more opportunity to struggle or fail.
Why Kids with Learning and Attention Issues May Feel Stress
Kids with learning and attention issues face all the issues other young people face—homework, social life, family issues. But they face additional issues that add to their frustration and anxiety.
At school: Stress can result from a chaotic classroom, unclear homework assignments or a fear of failure. For a child with learning and attention issues, fear of being called on in class can be a trigger:
- While other students might look forward to their turn reading out loud, a child with dyslexia may dread the idea.
- Gym may be great for a child with a lot of energy. But a child who struggles with motor skills may fear being made fun of.
At home: Children with learning and attention issues generally do better if they know what to expect and if the daily routines don’t change much. Change in the family routine—such as a parent going back to work—or even basic disorganization can be very stressful. Spending too much time without there being rules about what they should be doing can be stressful, too.
On the flip side, a child who struggles all day at school can feel overwhelmed if every afternoon is packed with extracurricular activities. Stress can also pile up when a child comes home and feels that her parents expect too much from her.
Socially: Most young people just want to fit in. That’s especially hard for children with learning and attention issues. They may feel different when they walk into the resource room or get extra time on a test. They may have a harder time finding someone to sit with at lunch or hang out with at recess.
How Stress Affects Kids With Learning and Attention Issues
Children with learning and attention issues respond like everyone else to stress: physically and emotionally. But there are some important differences to know about.
- They may not realize they’re feeling stress. They’re confused in class or eating lunch alone. But kids with learning and attention issues may avoid or deny the issue.
- Peers may not be a source of support. Turning to friends is an important coping strategy for young people. But children with learning and attention issues don’t do this nearly as often as their peers. They may be trying to avoid problems. They also may have smaller networks of friends.
Kids with learning and attention issues often spend time with other children like them. Kids with similar issues are less likely to be able to help each other precisely because they are dealing with their own struggles.
Signs of Stress to Watch For
There’s a good chance your child won’t ask for help. That’s why it’s important to stay tuned in and watch for signs of stress. These include:
- Sudden dramatic change in how much effort they put into school
- Avoiding school by refusing to go; avoiding tests by refusing to take them or, for example, suddenly needing to go to the nurse’s office
- Major change in attitude—they may become moody or careless
- Not doing chores
- Disruptive behavior
- Acting younger than their age
- Withdrawal or outbursts
- Cutting themselves off from family or friends
- Overactive behaviors (fidgeting, making unnecessary trips to the pencil sharpener or bathroom, jumping from task to task, not concentrating, being prone to accidents, and sighing)
- Unexplained fears
- Complaints of being tired and sick
- Problems sleeping
- Nail biting
- Increase in allergies and asthma
- Headaches or stomachaches
- Drug abuse
- Not eating or too much eating
How You Can Help
If you think your child is dealing with stress, there’s a lot you can do to help.
Keep talking and listening. Encourage your child to tell you if she’s feeling overwhelmed. Get in touch with teachers and counselors to let them know what you’re seeing and hearing.
Boost your child emotionally. Celebrate even small victories so your child knows what success feels like. Do your best to provide structure at home. Help her prepare if change is on the horizon.
Encourage good health. Physical activity, good eating habits and rest can help her stay strong. Find balance by getting her involved in school activities slowly and carefully instead of all at once.
Teach her how to cope. Break down big projects into smaller chunks. Use mistakes as learning opportunities. Brainstorm about what she can do differently the next time. Role-play to help her get comfortable with stressful situations, such as asking the teacher for help or walking into the lunchroom alone.
Seek outside advice. Social skills groups can help kids gain confidence and coping strategies—and learn they aren’t the only ones who struggle to fit in. Consider finding a class where your child can learn yoga, meditation or deep breathing. Mental health experts who specialize in treating children with learning and attention issues can also provide stress management skills.
Sometimes stress can indicate another condition, such as anxiety or depression. If you have concerns, you may want to see a medical professional.