Eddie was a disruptive ten years old student in class. Adept at annoying his teachers, he was constantly on detention during lunch time.
Although he was the clown in class, whose crazy antics tickled his classmates, he did not appear to have many friends in school. His teacher found him to be hard working but is losing patience with him.
Without a clearer understanding of him, it is easy to label him as a trouble maker. However, clinical psychologist Ms Lyn Worsley, a child adolescent and family therapist, advised that such cases are not so straightforward.
In Eddie case, it was found that his poor behaviour in school was a manifestation of childhood stress. He was one of the many children with behavioral problems Ms Worsley, director of Alpha Counselling Services sees at her clinic in Sydney.
Author of The Resilience Doughnut "The Secret of Strong Kids, a resource book that helps young people through stressful times. She will talk about building resilience in children at a public forum organised by the Institute of Mental Health (IMH).
According to her, Eddie's family life appeared to be a difficult one. His parents worked full time in their own business and this meant that Eddie was left alone most of the time. He rarely talked to his parents due to their exhaustion and distraction
"While this appears to be unrelated to Eddie's significant behaviour problems in school, Eddie's stress was evident in his inability to relate with others and express his needs," she said.
"My tummy hurts"
A child who experiences stress may not behave in the same way a stressed-out adult does. Younger children tend to have more "masked symptoms", said a senior consultant and chief of the department of child and adolescence psychiatry at IMH.
"At their young age, they may not have the language skills to describe the stress they are undergoing."
"Unlike adults. stressed out kids tend to have more physical or somatic complaints. The child may appear to fall ill more frequently or have declining academic results."
Ms Worsley added that children also have less control over their emotions, and hence react to them in ways that are difficult for adults to understand.
So while adults may start snapping at people or simply become quiet whenever they are feeling stressed. A child who feels pressured in his everyday life may interpret stress as irritation in their bodies, resulting in changes in bowel habits and tummy aches, said Ms Worsley.
She added that they may also become more demanding and revert to earlier developmental behavior like bed-wetting and tantrums in some cases.
While there are no official statistics to show how stressed out Singaporean kids are, a 2007 local study done by IMH on 2,139 primary school children found that 12.5 percent of them had emotional and behavioural problems.
Over at IMH's child guidance clinic, which sees children aged six to 19, outpatient cases have risen by 16 percent from 2006 to 2009. Often many of the cases cite academic stress, peer and family pressure to do well in school as the reasons for their emotional and behavioral problems.
What’s causing your child’s stress?
Often, Dr Fung said the main source of stress for children comes from environmental changes due to issues such as marital conflict between their parent's. “Children are still not masters of their own fate. A child’s stress is often linked to his adult caregivers,” he said.
Routine and predictability give a child some of control over their lives. In today’s hurried pace of life, children who has no say in their lives will also experience stress, added Ms Worsley.
However, Dr Fung said it is important to note that some degree of stress may not be a bad thing, since it drives a person to better himself. “Stress is only bad when it is chronic, unpredictable and hard to control,” he added.
Enter Resilience Building
While it may not be possible to change the temperament a person is born with, Ms Worsely said resilience skills can be built to help him cope more efficiently in tough times.
“Resilience is not a personal trait but rather a process,” she said. In Ms Worsely’s Resilience Doughnut model, a child’s resilience can be honed by building strong environmental factors around him. There are seven types of environmental strengths; parents, skills, family, education, peers, community and money or work.
“From these seven, a child needs only three to work well for him to develop resilience, It is even better if he has more, but child who has less than three will not have the best environment to build resilience skills,” she explained.
Ultimately, the onus is on parents to monitor their child’s emotional well-being, said Dr Fung. “It is not just all about ensuring the child does well in school. Keep in touch with his or her emotional needs too. Support them without mollycoddling or over protecting them,” he said.
Articles by Bernard Teo