Stress And Your Young Child: How You Can Help Them Cope


Childhood as a carefree time of playing with friends, going to school, and spending your allowance on candy is a notion so old and outmoded that even the most nostalgic grandparent admits it is long gone. Children have stressors in their lives that can leave wounds that even their parents don't see. You can learn to spot your child's stress and help them to cope. Read and be encouraged!


Back to school time is here again! In North Carolina cool autumn temperatures are still at least ten weeks away but school doesn't care. We go back to school when it is so hot and humid that the outdoor air feels exactly like we are wearing a scratchy wet sweatshirt one size too small.


When I was a child living in the tri-state area of New York and Connecticut, we went back to school right after Labor Day and we usually needed sweaters. Not in the Tarheel State! We start school in our summer clothes and return home each day sticky and smelly. And that's just the teachers.


Back to school time is often stressful. For everyone. But for a young child the stress can be overwhelming. Change is a big cause of stress across the human experience but for children, who have so little experience and still have so much to learn, this big change can be incredibly disruptive. Even if they have been in school for a few years, the difference between summer and school year schedules is huge, and that is just the beginning of the stress agents.


Don't you remember? I certainly do. Everything was new: teacher, classroom, classmates, lunch group, recess, everything. Throw in things I never thought of: active shooter drills, high stakes testing, aspects of human sexuality that children can't understand during the young years. School is harder than it has ever been.


For many children, the back to school concerns are the tip of the iceberg. The larger concerns, the ones hidden deep below the surface are very real, very scary, very big problems that are a part of far too many young lives. Almost certainly they are part of the lives of children you know.


If you have a young child who has friends, chances are good that at least one of these friends is carrying burdens that are too heavy for their little shoulders. Maybe one of those heavily laden little ones is your child.


More children than you realize have chaotic, dysfunctional, negative homes. Absentee or disengaged parents, extended family conflict that has caused the child to lose contact with someone they love. Death, divorce, violence, hateful words, bullying, badgering, berating. These toxins are part of many families that look very nice from the outside.


Stress in children shows itself in ways that adults may not recognize. An adult can simply articulate that they are stressed. For children it is not that easy. Especially since you can almost always count on some adult in that child's life to respond by saying, "How can you be stressed? You are a kid! You don't know anything about stress!" This kind of response is not helpful, and causes the child to feel alone.


At Harbor Home we are all about helping and encouraging families. Every family, every day. How can you be a helper to a stressed child?


Here are ways to recognize childhood stress and then ways to help alleviate it:


  1. Body language: Worry lines on forehead, body seems tense and wary. Child holds their body stiff and can not relax into the hug from a trusted caregiver. Tight fists made of their hands while seated. Remember that all stress sets off physical responses in the body. Tummy aches, head aches, the urge to bite nails or chew hair. Children sometimes will bite themselves or others in response to stress. Watch closely for these behaviors.

How can you help? Use soft voice and reassuring words to remind that child that you are a safe person to be near. Ask if they would like to tell you what they are feeling or thinking. Ask who is their favorite person and why. If you are not the parent, ask the parent how you can work with them to help.

2. Intense displays of temper: Tantrum behavior can be distressing and is typically a sign of a hungry, dehydrated, tired child who needs food, water or rest. Temper tantrums that last thirty minutes or more or result in the child harming themselves or others or deliberately destroying items can be an indicator of stress in the child's life. Remember that something that seems straight forward and normal to adults may feel very stressful to a child.

How can you help? Remember to view the child's life circumstances through their eyes. A divorce means someone they love is gone forever. For an adult a divorce may seem like a logical outcome of an abusive marriage but, to the child, it is devastating.


A parent that frequently travels for business is a source of constant upheaval in the home. A young child can not possibly understand this kind of disruption. Even if it is explained to them.


Verbal and/or physical violence in the home terrifies children and leaves them stressed to the point that tantrum behavior is common. Respond to the tantrums with as much one on one time with the child as possible.


Give them safe outlets for the fear and anger. Running, bike riding, skating, or other physical activity can help. Include as much appropriate physical touch as possible. Snuggles, assuring words, read aloud, talk it our, ask the child specific open ended questions about what is happening in their lives.


Try to intervene before the tantrum begins. If the child snaps inexplicably, remove them to a place where no one can be hurt. Stay near the child. They don't need a "time out" they need a "time in" where they are close to a safe adult. Wipe their face with a cool, damp cloth or massage their tense shoulders. Ask this question, "What happened? Can you tell me so I can help?"


This post barely touches the surface of childhood stress. But you can be the one who more aware and more open to the concept that childhood is a life stage that contains all the elements of every other life stage: discoveries, joy, relationships, stress, and all the other things that are part of every human life. Children are people. Children matter. They need adults who love them to walk with them in authentic relationships. Children are a vital part of their community and deserve the same respect and understanding that you yourself want.


Recognize that your child may be feeling anxious and stressed about the new school year and all the details. They may be anxious about the lunch room, making new friends, choosing a seat in the classroom, expectations in PE class, or lots of other things. Take some time to just be near by. Ask good questions about what they are feeling, thinking, and experiencing. If they can name what their concerns are and you offer understanding and validate their experience, you can ease you child's heart and mind so that they can learn, and grow and enjoy.

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