Childhood is a stage that packs a big punch across the human life span. It represents about 10% of our lifetimes, but it impacts us powerfully until the very end of life. Stress in young children can not be eliminated but harmful, long term effects can be mitigated. You can help your child navigate stress while managing your own. Everybody wins!
Last week in this space I wrote about childhood stress and the interest it sparked prompted me to revisit the topic. I closed last week by saying that I had not even scratched the surface of stress in young children, so this week I'm going to scratch the surface a little more.
Stress is a part of the human experience at every stage in life and has an affect on all of us. Stress, in and of itself, is not necessarily a bad thing. Stress spurs us to achieve, create healthy change, move from negative to positive circumstances and to make other improvements. Stress can be a great motivator and an inspiration when we need it.
Stress becomes a negative force when it paralyzes us or when we deal with it in ways that are damaging. This is particularly true in our young children. The harmful effects of stress in young children can last decades and cause symptoms of depression such as sadness, fear, anxiety, decrease self worth, and many other signs of generalized stress. Children experience all of these strong feelings and, unless there is an adult showing them the way, they do not know how to manage them. We can help our littles become more able to cope.
Let's begin by asking ourselves how we, as adults, cope with stress. If we can learn how to manage our own strong reactions we can teach our young ones to do so as well. You can not teach what you don't know. So begin by examining your own stress reactions. When you are stressed do you turn to alcohol or do you have outbursts that disrupt your home? Do you shut down, isolate, and withdraw? Do you become emotionally unavailable to your children?
There are better ways that create less havoc for those you love. These reactions demonstrate unhealthy responses for your child and they are likely to handle their stress in the way you have taught them by example. In addition, your child becomes stressed witnessing your stress. What's worse is that they are desperate to fix the problem but they are helpless.
If you doubt that children are that complex, search your memory and return to your own childhood. The greatest gift you can give your child is the empathy that comes from remembering what it was like to be a child. Recall the times when you felt small and vulnerable. Remind yourself that your child feels that way too sometimes.
There are thousands of bloggers that can offer stress reduction techniques for adults, so if you, as a parent, need to adjust how you handle yourself in times of trial I suggest you look into that. My own stress management techniques require constant maintenance. I know how challenging it can be to respond in a healthy manner to stressful circumstances. It takes practice and intentionality, but you can do it and so can your child.
So here is the bottom line. How can you recognize your child's stress and what can you do to help them? Here are some ways young children signal stress and what you can do.
Frequent, excessive crying. Offer a compassionate response. Notice the feelings behind the tears. Say to your child, "You seem really sad. Do you want to tell me why you are sad?" Please don't respond to your child's tears with irritation or harshness. Children cry for a reason. Perhaps their reasons for crying seem inconsequential to you, but to your child they are real. Investigate what is going on with the child's siblings, peers, caregivers, and other important relationships. Your child may have someone rejecting or hurting them. Assume your child is crying for a reason. Look into it.
Nail biting, biting self or others. Again, assume this is happening for a reason. When you see your child doing this, or see the signs that they have done this in secret, point out the injury and say, "That looks like it hurt! Can you tell me how that happened?" Carry the conversation forward. Remind them that you love them and don't want them to be hurt. Ask if you can help. Ask if they would like to tell you what they are feeling when they bite themselves.
Change in sleep patterns. If your child suddenly can not sleep or has other changes in sleep habits such new or more frequent nightmares, you should mention this first to your pediatrician. In addition to that, become vigilant about your child's bedtime routines and rituals. Set a consistent bed time that coincides with the number of hours of sleep your child needs to function well. Create comforting habits such as a warm bath followed by soft, comfy pajamas and quiet, undistracted cuddle time. Include reading aloud, low voices, and comforting words of affection. Screaming, "get to bed, now!" is a bedtime ritual that needs some work. Just sayin.
Once again, I have come to the end of the blog and have so much more encouragement that I want to share! At the risk of running over the number of words that people are willing to read at one sitting, I am going to say one more thing:
You can practice all these suggestions as proactive, preventative steps to lower the impact of stress on your child. How? Try these two simple things:
a. Be engaged in your child's emotions before they become overwhelmed. Ask good questions about relationships with caregivers and peers. Stay in touch and aware of your child and how they are navigating life. No child should have to do that alone.
b. Provide and create routines and rituals. These give your child a sense of predictability and order and lower stress. Pay particular attention to meal and bedtime rituals. When these are positive and enjoyable your child will know that no matter how chaotic or unpredictable life is, there are these things that remain safe and consistent. There should be some loving constants in your child's life that will give them stability and a place to anchor their emotions. Create a harbor home.
For more on how to create a harbor home, I invite you to purchase my book, "Harbor Home: Create A Home Where You And Your Children Can Thrive". It is available wherever books are sold. Follow the link here: https://www.amazon.com/Harbor-Home-Create-Children-Thrive/dp/1631957287/ref=sr_1_1?crid=YJ98ZBF2KTB3&keywords=harbor+home+teresa+auten&qid=1660575316&sprefix=harbor+home+teresa+auten%2Caps%2C86&sr=8-1