Is it Stress or is it Anxiety? How to find out which one your child is experiencing

“More primary children suffering from stress…” (Guardian, 1 May 2017)


“Primary SATs are too stressful for pupils, say MPs” (Daily Mail, 1 May 2017)


One-Eighty doesn’t need the media to tell us about the rising levels of stress in primary schools: almost half of our referrals are now for younger children and many cite raised levels of anxiety as a reason for getting in touch.

But is it stress? Or anxiety? Or is it just a question of vocabulary? Actually, it is very important we differentiate between the two and that we promote emotional literacy in children to ensure that they also use the right word for the right thing.

Stress is a response to an external threat. It triggers the mechanism many of us know as ‘fight or flight”, cortisone floods the body and prepares us to take action. In moderation, it is undeniably a very useful thing and we should make sure that our children and young people know that. A life without % of challenge, and the relative stress that comes with that, would be a half life.

However, studies of pupils excluded from primary schools have shown that high percentages of these children had been subjected to multiple stress factors including birth parents no longer living together, multiple moves and being “looked after” by the local authority. All this before you add in the effects of an educational culture of testing and the impact of social media.

In contrast, anxiety comes from within. It is an excessive response to future possibilities rather than present tense certainties, and it tends to build over time in the mind before you see it in a child’s behaviour. What if? How will I? Anxiety often does not develop until about 3 years old because developmentally children need to be able to hypothesise in order to feel anxious. This is, of course, also the age at which most children start school.

Although the links between stress and anxiety disorders are unclear, research indicates that children who have suffered two or more stressful life events (and we can add to the list above factors such as domestic violence, crime and bereavement) are more likely to develop anxiety disorders. However, those who experience life stress, and cope, achieve and overcome as a result, are more likely to build resilience later in life. The answer, therefore, is not to shelter young people from challenge and stress.  So what does One-Eighty do to support younger children in the management of stress and to reduce the likelihood of developing anxiety disorders?


Locus of control:

The extent to which children believe they have some control over events or their responses to events is important. The terrifying feeling that there’s nothing we can do can lead to catastrophic thinking: if Mummy isn’t at the school gates then she is probably dead, is an anxious over-anticipation fear of threat. One-Eighty works to help children understand their emotions because knowledge empowers.

Identifying stressors:

Our work helps young children to identify the specific external factors causing them stress to avoid feelings spiralling into general anxiety. A child threatened by a writing test may either avoid the task by leaving the classroom (flight) or by becoming disruptive (fights). The behaviours often mask the cause for both child and teacher. Understanding the reasons facilitates solutions. If we can break down the challenges the child faces then they can look at them as realistic and helpful events that will cause them to grow, rather than impossible monstrous tasks.


Recognising the signs of stress:

Tummy aches, poor sleeping, aggression – all are signs of stress. A range of techniques, for instance body mapping help to locate a child’s individual responses – raised heart beat, sick stomach, clenched fist – can help a child to more accurately monitor themselves.


Developing responses to stressful situations:

Children can learn to understand which of their behaviours are helpful or unhelpful and mini experiments put this learning into practice. What was your pulse rate before SATs? What was it before going out to play? Did you cope with that situation? What could you have done before the event to better prepare you to cope?


Learning how to relax and rediscovering play:

In many primary schools, children are already learning helpful relaxation techniques and One-Eighty builds on this work teaching visualisation, breathing, counting and distraction techniques which can be used in the classroom and at home.


Family Work:

One of the most important factors in the management of stressful events for children is the attachment to, and the role modelling of, the primary caregiver. One-Eighty supports families to manage stress safely, particularly by helping primary carers to recognise their own coping mechanisms and the messages they may be subconsciously giving their children and by encouraging them to empower their children to face up to a stressful situation rather than collude in avoidance.


By Catherine Lloyd, Lead Practitioner for Mental and Emotional Health.

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