Stress in young children

Children’s books can open a door for discussion of stressful topics and encourage problem solving skills.

It is important to help children cope with distress and frustration and learn skills to deal with things that cause them stress.
It is important to help children cope with distress and frustration and learn skills to deal with things that cause them stress.

It seems as though all adults are stressed these days. Daily responsibilities can take a toll. What about young children? Do they get stressed too?

Stress can be difficult to detect in young children. Stress is when pressure on the outside of your body causes a pressure on the inside. Many signs that we commonly observe in young children (fear of separation from mom or dad, crying, fussiness, changes in eating habits, sleep disruption) can be part of a child’s normal growth and development patterns. Adjustment issues for infants and preschool children who are new to day care, learning to trust a new care provider or exploring an unfamiliar environment are not unusual. If the signals mentioned above are sudden changes, persist over time or are brand new and out-of-the-blue, these may be signals of stress in a child.

Michigan State University Extension says that stress in infants and toddlers can begin as a general fussiness or inconsolable crying that seems to be more than what most children at their age display. Changes in appetite that are extremes for the child’s normal behavior (not eating or eating uncontrollably) can also be signs of stress.

In preschoolers and school-age children stress might appear as jittery behavior, inability to sit still, disrupting others or self-stimulation like rocking or thumb-sucking. Sleep and eating patterns might also be disrupted. Normally compliant children may choose to not cooperate and difficult children may become withdrawn. Children react in different ways to stress.  

It is important to help children cope with distress and frustration and learn skills to deal with events of daily life that can cause them stress. Children will learn how to cope with stress by modeling the adults in their lives. When an adult remains calm, controls anger and talks through new experiences with a child in a controlled way, he is teaching the child how to relax and handle stress. When children are surrounded by supportive, caring adults in their lives, they are more resilient or more able to bounce back from stress. Maintaining a predictable schedule for the child can assist in relieving stress and worry.

An additional way to approach change that causes stress for young children is to identify children’s books that relate to what the child is experiencing. Research has shown that quality children’s literature can provide a way for children to better understand what they are experiencing. Children can learn empathy and understanding and may make a connection to a character and event that is similar to theirs. Stories can make a topic that is difficult to understand more human. Often children will begin to talk and think about how they feel or what they could do in a similar circumstance. With an adult guiding them, a child can explore problem solving skills that relate to a story.

Choosing books that relate to stressful experiences is as easy, search the internet, talk with a child’s teacher or explore your local library. Some common stresses for children, with corresponding books that address issues and can be addressed using children’s literature include:

  • Death in the Family - The Tenth Good Thing About Barney, The Fall of Freddie the Leaf, or I’ll Always Love You
  • Family Illness - Now One Food, Now the Other, or Bear Feels Sick
  • Divorce - Two Homes, The Days of Summer, or Fred Stays with Mel
  • Angry Feelings - When Sophie Gets Angry, When you’re Angry and You Know It, or What Are You so Grumpy About?
  • New Baby - What the No-Good Baby is Good For, or Julius, Baby of the World
  • Moving - I Miss You Every Day, or Me and Mr. Mah
  • Starting School - Wemberly Worried, Countdown to Kindergarten, or Mr. Ouchy’s First Day

When you are dealing with sensitive topics with children, remember to treat children with compassion and respect. Respect a child’s wishes if she chooses to stop a book or wants a story repeated. Let the child set the pace for reading and discussion.

With 24 hour news that is available today through television, the internet and other media, children are exposed to world of stressors outside the home. When a child has prolonged difficulty with any change or is affected negatively by stressful events you may want to consider seeking outside consul. Consulting your family physician or a mental health practitioner is always advisable if you have ongoing concerns or if the child’s behavior is being disruptive to family life and to others.

Did you find this article useful?