Children & Stress: Tips to Help Your Child Cope

What is stress?

Stress is the body’s reaction to any situation that requires  adjustment.  Both positive and negative events can cause stress, whether it’s getting a new puppy or starting tutoring sessions.  Occasional stress is a normal and predictable part of a child’s daily life, however, constant stress can cause significant problems for a child.   Children who face the additional challenge of managing a chronic medical or mental health condition are at greater risk for physical, emotional, and behavioral difficulties due to constant stress.

What does stress look like?

  • Physical: headaches, stomach aches, nausea/vomiting, bedwetting, changes in appetite, sleep difficulty – including nightmares and night waking
  • Emotional: anger, fear, irritability, sadness, moodiness
  • Behavioral: extreme shyness/withdrawal, drying, temper tantrums, acting out, biting, excessive laziness, thumb sucking

While all children experience some of these signs/symptoms from time to time, parents want to take notice when there is a change in what is normal for their child and when multiple symptoms occur at the same time or in clusters.

What factors influence stress?

  • Temperament: Some children tend not to be bothered by change or difficult situations and naturally have an easy-going, laid back style.  Other children may be easily upset and get distressed with even small changes in routine or challenges that arise.  A child’s individual personality develops from what he/she has inherited genetically combined with the environment in which he/she is raised. It’s important to know your child’s temperament.
  • Age:  Younger children do not have the skills to tell us how they feel or the language to describe the stressful situations which then results in changes in behavior.
  • Sex:  Research shows that under high-stress situations, boys tend to show more external behaviors (such as acting out, being disruptive, and aggressive) while girls tend to internalize their upset (becoming anxious or depressed).  Internalizing symptoms increases the likelihood of physical symptoms.

What can I do to help my child manage stress?

  • Be a positive role model for dealing with stress, when you are calm and in control, they will be more likely to follow your lead.
  • Prepare your child for stressful events you can anticipate, like going back to school or a doctor’s appointment.
  • Teach your child how to identify, express, and accept his/her feelings appropriately.
  • Allow/encourage your child to talk about what is bothering him/her, creating an open-door for communication without forcing it.
  • Make time to be with your child on a one-to-one basis regularly, creating opportunity for conversation.
  • Create time for physical activities with other family members, allowing everyone to release the chemicals in the brain that combat stress.
  • Use story telling as a way to teach your child how to manage stress.  There are great books about feelings you could read or share one of your own stories about dealing with stress.
  • Balance time for your child to engage in activities with downtime for relaxation.
  • Teach your child ways to help their bodies relax, such as taking deep breaths, counting backwards, or imagining their favorite places.
  • Maintain healthy eating and sleeping habits in the home to support emotional wellness.

Written by Victoria L. Norton, Psy.D. at Linden BP. If you are interested in receiving Linden Blog updates with original articles about parenting, families, mental health, and wellness, subscribe using the field below.