Common warning signs of kids in distress

Compiled by Elizabeth M. Collins*, Soldiers
Warning signs of stress in children vary by age, but can include anything from developmental regressions such as bedwetting in very small children to a lack of interest in formerly favorite activities to anger and risk-taking behavior in teenagers. (Original U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Master Sgt. David H. Lipp, DOD photo illustration by Peggy Frierson)

Warning signs of stress in children vary by age, but can include anything from developmental regressions such as bedwetting in very small children to a lack of interest in formerly favorite activities to anger and risk-taking behavior in teenagers. (Original U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Master Sgt. David H. Lipp, DOD photo illustration by Peggy Frierson)

According to Army experts, every child responds to stress differently. Most military kids are extremely resilient, and will bounce back quickly, but some will struggle. Warning signs vary by age and individual child, but in general, parents should be on the lookout for any major changes in mood or behavior that continue for four weeks or more.

Young children

  • Developmental regression, such as suddenly bedwetting again
  • Sleep problems such as difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep or nightmares
  • Tantrums
  • Acting out
  • Separation anxiety

Elementary age

  • Mysterious aches and pains (which should first be brought to a pediatrician’s attention)
  • Sleep problems such as difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep or nightmares
  • Sadness
  • Separation anxiety
  • Reluctance to go to school or participate in once-enjoyable activities
  • Withdrawn
  • Excessive worry, fear or anxiety
  • Acting out
  • Lower grades
  • Disruptive behavior in school

Teenagers

  • Lower grades
  • Disruptive behavior in school
  • Risk-taking behavior
  • Testing limits such as curfews
  • Defiance
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Depression
  • Isolation
  • Withdrawn
  • Poor hygiene

This list should not be viewed as comprehensive, and any parent who is concerned should not hesitate to seek help for his or her child sooner rather than later, within one to two weeks if the behavior is a real impairment.

Any child who begins to self-harm, threaten suicide or talk of death needs immediate assistance from mental health professionals.

*Editor’s Note: This information is taken from interviews with Army behavioral health experts, retired Col. Stephen J. Cozza, M.D.; retired Col. Michael Faran, M.D.; retired Lt. Col. Patti Johnson, Ph.D. and Maisley Paxton, Ph.D. For more information, read “The mental state of military kidsor visit the National Institutes of Health resource page. Resources to help children cope with deployments and moving are also available through Military OneSource and the Military Child Education Coalition.

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