Strategies to Help Children Cope with Stress
Stress can seem like a very ‘adult’ concern, but the truth is stress is felt at every age and stage, even early childhood. The difference between adults and children is the ability to address and cope with stress. As we know, young children lack the developmental skills to express their feelings directly, but just because they can’t say it doesn’t mean they can’t feel it.
Identifying any stressors in a child’s life is essential as they can harm their development and future health outcomes. The good news is that research has shown that the greatest combatant to stress in a child’s life is a consistent and compassionate caretaker and/or system of relationships.
Different Types of Stressors
Stress can be broken down into three broad types: positive, tolerable, and toxic. The three types range from developmental to detrimental.
- Positive stress is a part of healthy development. It is an internal response, a slight increase in hormone levels and heartbeat, caused by an external event like the start of preschool or receiving a shot at the doctor. It is unavoidable and when managed with the help of a caretaker, it is short-lived and helps to build a child’s resilience.
- Tolerable Stress is a more severe but temporary response to a pronounced life change like a major move, being overly scheduled, or a divorce. A child who is nurtured through a stressful event by a caretaker will recover more quickly and have better long-term outcomes.
- Toxic stress produces a long-lasting response due to consistent and severe distress. Examples include maltreatment, poverty, racism and having a caregiver with substance abuse issues. The absence of responsive relationships amplifies toxic stress. It is incredibly detrimental to a child’s brain and organ development.
“The extent to which stressful events have a lasting adverse effect is determined in part by the duration, intensity, timing, and context of the stressful experience.”
Symptoms of a Stressed Child
A change in a child’s behavior, outside of standard development changes, can indicate that they may be experiencing stress in their bodies. Behavioral changes could include:
- Emotional changes: anger, sadness, isolation, increased attachment, overly seeking reassurance
- Changes in sleeping patterns: new fears, nightmares, restlessness, and bedwetting if toilet trained
- Changes in eating habits: food restriction, reduced or increased appetite
- Physical changes: stomachaches, headaches, digestive issues, anxious or aggressive movements
What Does Stress Do To A Child and Their Development?
As mentioned earlier, stress can affect a child’s development and health outcomes in varying degrees of severity. Toxic stress can alter a child’s brain chemistry and organ development resulting in potentially life long consequences including:
- Under-developed executive functioning skills: memory, self-control, organization and more
- Chronic health conditions like diabetes and cancer
- Stunted emotional regulation
- Ineffective coping skills
Strategies For Helping a Child Cope with Stress
Various strategies can help children cope with their stress. One of the most important starts with the parent or caretaker first. Taking time out for yourself every day is essential to manage stress healthily. Modeling positive coping strategies sets a positive example for children. Families can also practice active and relaxing stress-management tools together.
Active Coping Strategies
- Spend time outside- take a walk, head to a park, or explore nature
- Get connected- spend time with family or friends
- Pick a favorite song- turn on music and dance
- Make art- get out the coloring books and crayons or other craft activities
Relaxing Coping Strategies
- Listen to calming music together
- Practice mindfulness by modeling breathing exercises or engaging in a sensory activity
- Make a calming jar and establish a calm down space in your home
- Have them take a bath or shower
You may find more coping and activities on the QSSB parent resource page.
What Parents Can Do
Connecting with your child in times of stress will help give them the tools to communicate and cope. Supporting your child starts with awareness, noticing what is happening in their world and how they react to it, then building systems of repair and connection to grow strength and resilience. For little ones, connection can look like narrating what they’re experiencing and giving them your full positive attention and affection. For older ones, connection can include giving them the space to share their feelings and working on coping tactics together.
If You Need Additional Help
Sometimes the stress can be so great that a caretaker may seek additional help for their child. Support can be found in community-based programs like parenting classes, peer networking opportunities, specialized programs, mindfulness and yoga for kids, and therapy.