How to Recognize Stress in Young Children and Help Them Cope
Posted on August 1, 2023 by CHS
Not all stress is bad stress. Small challenges can help children become more resilient and understand how to manage everyday stressors, such as by finding solutions, seeking help as needed, etc. Depending on their developmental level and experiences, there can be a variety of ways in which children can recognize stress, cope with stress, and bounce back with healthy strategies.
What are some signs of stress in children?
Changes in behavior: Children may try to communicate their stress with their behaviors. Some common behavioral reactions to stress in children may include:
- Increased fear of things
- Regression to former younger behaviors
- More clinging than normal
- Talks less
- Less interest in play
- Poor concentration
Trouble sleeping: A child might complain of feeling more tired than normal, sleeping more than usual, or having trouble falling asleep at night.
Eating changes: Drastic eating changes, such as eating more or less than they usually do.
Getting sick more often: Stress often shows up as physical symptoms of illness. For example, they may state they have headaches or stomachaches more frequently.
Strategies to help children cope with stress:
Teach children to be aware of their breathing. Teaching children to be mindful of slowing down their breathing can help reduce stress and encourage them to become more self-aware of their needs. For example, “I noticed you were pacing and breathing quite heavily. Could we count to ten and take a deep breath to figure out what to do next together?”
Teach children to be aware of how their body reacts to stress. If you notice abrupt changes such as thumb-sucking, nail-biting, hair twirling, or nose picking, guide the child by providing language to help describe what they may be feeling, such as, “I noticed you are biting your nails. Is your nail bothering you, or are you feeling a bit nervous? Let’s sit down and talk about it.”
Establish check-in routines, and listen and talk with your child to help them feel safe and loved. Talk about possible solutions by asking open-ended questions like, “Tell me about your day.” Staying calm and supportive of your child during a challenging time will teach them to do the same for themselves and others.
Prioritize family time, such as reading a book together or having consistent meals together. Give children extra support and stability when they are going through a new or stressful life event, such as the arrival of a new sibling, a family divorce, or making new friends.
Be aware of media quality and the amount of time the child spends using media and looking at screens. Is the content appropriate? Is it disrupting their sleeping patterns? Is it related to their anxieties?
Get moving. Spend time outside riding a bike or scooter, playing ball, visiting your local library, or walking to your local park or beach.
Positive stress provides children a chance to learn and encourages them to create and conquer new goals, adapt to changes, and gain confidence. Children are simply trying to figure out the world around them based on past experiences; some children may need more support than others. If you are unsure if your child is experiencing or not coping well with stress, please consult your pediatrician or medical professional for further questions.
References and Resources:
- Childhood Stress: How Parents Can Help (available in Spanish)
- Healthy Coping Skills for Uncomfortable Emotions
- Sesame Street Muppets Abby Cadabby, Elmo, and APA help parents and kids with emotions
- Helping Children Cope with Stress
- Teaching Pyramid Module 1: Relationships and Environment
- Stressed Out Kids? Signs and Strategies
- Stress and Young Children
- Helping Children Handle Stress
- Creative Ways to Teach Breathing Practices to Young Learners
- How to recognize signs of distress in children
- 10 Tips for Raising a Resilient Kids
- How to Create Quality Time with Your Family
- Message in a Backpack ™ Spark Creative Thinking with Open-Ended Questions
- Spend Time in Nature to Reduce Stress and Anxiety
- Beyond Screen Time: Help Your Kids Build Healthy Media Use Habits