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Are your kids stressed?

11 April 2017

Experts say Australians are increasingly affected by stress. So how can you tell if your child’s behaviour is a normal response to everyday situations or if they would benefit from professional help?

Metro South Addiction and Mental Health Services (MSAMHS) Occupational Therapist Nicola Cantoni says children and teens who have trouble with sensory processing often experience stress that can lead to challenging or confusing behaviours.

“Sensory processing refers to how our brain and nervous system makes sense of what is happening around us,” Ms Cantoni said.

“When our nervous system is well organised, we can thrive in busy environments, maintain focus and manage social interactions more easily.

“For some young people and adults, our nervous system has difficulty making sense of what is happening inside our body and around us..

“Every body’s nervous system is different and our body does the best it can to feel comfortable in each environment.”

MSAMHS Executive Director Professor David Crompton said Child and Youth Mental Health Services were currently trialling an approach to identify sensory based strategies to help young people feel calmer and to strengthen the relationships with their parent or caregiver.

He said Metro South Child and Youth Mental Health Services provided specialist services for assessment and intervention for children and young people with severe and complex mental health illnesses such as anxiety, depression, eating disorders, self-harm and childhood trauma.

“If you believe your child may be have difficulties with sensory processing the first thing to do is contact your local GP or consider seeing a paediatrician or private Occupational Therapist for assessment,” he said.

So, what are the signs that your child may need professional help?

Highly emotional responses to everyday situations

Children may be tearful without an obvious trigger or seem unable to cope with shopping, crowds or family outings. They may have frequent trouble in the playground or frequent emotional outbursts after school or if plans change. This could be a sign that their nervous system is overloaded. Alternatively, children may seem to frequently “zone out”.

Aggressive behaviour

Some children may frequently get too close to others, or be extra rough with their toys, other people, pets or belongings.

It may also be worth considering if this type of behaviour may be related to food allergies, find our more here.  If aggressive behaviour escalates then consider input from a health professional.

Difficulties with attention or concentration

Children may have difficulty  sitting still and may be easily startled They may have difficulty following instructions or getting things done quickly enough, and can show signs of being fearful of certain movements, objects or activities e.g. escalators, heights, tilting their head.

What could you try to help your child?

If your child is having an outburst, offer a safe space for him/her to calm down. Your child will be calmer if you can try to stay calm. Doing a quiet activity together once you are both calm enough may also help.
Exercise before and/or after school or an outing can be beneficial for active children or undertaking a quiet activity indoors may help them mentally prepare for the event (or settle down afterwards). E.g. swinging, climbing, crawling, pushing, pulling, lifting, swimming, bike riding, going to the park (when it’s not too busy). If they feel uncomfortable, try something different.
Let your child know what you are doing or where you are going before you head out. This will help them understand what to expect. Pictures can be helpful too. Consider making checklists outlining what is happening for the day (and jobs they need to do).
Let your child take some favourite toys or books along on an outing or give them a break outside from the shop/venue if it’s possible.
Headphones or listening to calming music could be helpful too.
Crunchy or chewy foods, or sucking a drink slowly through a straw may also help them feel more settled.

Contact details for private Occupational Therapists registered with Occupational Therapy Australia can be found at

The Metro South community can access local mental health services for information and assistance in times of mental health crisis 24 hours a day via a centralised phone number, 1300 MH Call (1300 64 22 55).

The number is not a replacement for emergency services or support services for current consumers. People requiring emergency assistance should continue to call Triple 0.

Last updated 19 August 2021
Last reviewed 13 October 2016

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