Sign #1: Complaint of Mystery Symptoms
Have you noticed that your child or teen has recurring headaches or stomachaches -- often related to school or extracurricular activities? It could be a sign of stress, says Margaret Richards, PhD, a pediatric behavioral health specialist with Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital. “Parents are sometimes under the impression that more is better,” says pediatrician Ellen Rome, MD, head of adolescent medicine at Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital; they don’t immediately realize what health effects hyper-busyness can have on kids.
The Fix: Take inventory
Step back and take inventory with your kid, Dr. Richards suggests. “First, listen to the language they use to describe different activities.” It may be that they no longer enjoy their once-favorite sport because they are putting so much pressure on themselves, but they don’t want to feel like they are disappointing you or the team (that’s especially true for high-achieving kids). Instill the importance of paying attention to signals they’re getting from their body.
Sign #2: Unhealthy Sleep Patterns
“It’s a rare kid who needs less than seven hours of sleep,” Dr. Rome says. Most children and teens need between nine and 12 hours. The problems often start when kids go to bed later but still have to wake at the same time to get to school or early morning sports practices, Dr. Rome says. “Chronic tiredness impacts everything, like mood, home life, grades and performance in extracurricular things likes sports,” she says. Plus, kids do some of their best growing while sleeping, so skimping on sleep can spark a chain reaction of unhealthiness.
The Fix: Reset the Pattern
One possibility is that your kid is going to bed too late because he is catching up on homework late into the night (and then may have trouble falling asleep because he is too wired). Another possibility is that he is having sleep disturbances, such as insomnia or even nightmares (especially for young kids). Parents need to look at the logistical stuff: Does your child have enough time to get homework done (without compromising sleep)?
Sign #3: Nose-Diving Grades
If your A/B student suddenly starts bringing home falling or failing grades (versus just struggling in one subject or with one teacher), there is probably something going on. It’s normal for students to struggle a bit as their schedules get busier, but figuring out the balance between schoolwork and extracurricular activities is super important (and a skill they’ll need even more as they get older), so don’t just slough it off as “to be expected.”
The Fix: Re-prioritize
“Figure out the priorities with your child,” Dr. Richards says. Making schoolwork the number one priority means schoolwork comes first — and other activities come second. Parents and kids can both lose sight of this when things get hectic. “Evaluate each thing your child is involved in and figure out together how essential it is,” she suggests. Assign each activity some sort of rating, so the two of you can figure out together what might need to go.
Sign #4: Manic Moods
Hormones can certainly cause mood swings in teens. Still, you probably have a feel for what kind of mood swings are normal, and what seems out of the ordinary (especially for pre-puberty-aged kids). “When your always-smiling child loses the laughter, something is going on,” Dr. Rome says. Irritability and withdrawal can be subtle signs of anxiety, or even depression. Notice these subtle changes -- and step in before your child considers acting out with drugs, alcohol or other risky and unhealthy behavior.
The Fix: Be an Investigator
You’ll have better luck if you work with your child to figure out what’s wrong (because she may not even realize it herself), rather than making unilateral decisions or punishing without trying to learn what’s really going on. Many things can cause anxiety for kids, such as fear of failure, feeling like they don’t have any control, and feeling overwhelmed. Step back from the busy schedule and have a heart-to-heart with your child, Dr. Rome says. You may be surprised by what they tell you!
Sign #5: Bad Eating Habits
“Denying the family dinner can have a profound impact,” Dr. Rome says. Families that eat together most of the time tend to eat healthier. A recent study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that teens who ate with their families consumed more fruits and dark green and orange veggies -- two of the healthiest. Those who didn't dine with their families tended to down more fast food (and therefore more saturated fat) and sugary drinks.
The Fix: More Family Meals
Slow down, and find a way to reinvent the family meal, Dr. Rome says, even if it’s unconventional -- like packing a picnic dinner and eating together on a blanket before soccer practice. Eating together as a family doesn’t have to mean slaving away for hours in the kitchen, cooking only fresh and organic ingredients. Even simple, convenient meals together offer time for bonding and good conversations.