Stressful situations aren’t confined to grown-ups They happen to children too, and they can be debilitating. We take a look at common childhood stress triggers, and advise how parents can help.
Stress is a survival mechanism designed to help us escape danger. It makes us adapt to new and challenging situations, and can be motivating and energising. But for children, stress can be profoundly damaging if it is prolonged and unmanaged.
A difficulty for children under 10, whose brains are smaller than ours and developing rapidly, is that the stress hormone cortisol acts directly on the brain. Lengthy exposure to this hormone can change the brain’s chemistry and function, affecting memory, thinking and attention span, as well as weakening the immune system.
The younger the child, the greater the impact, and the less able they are to reduce cortisol levels on their own. Older children have acquired strategies to deal with stress, but young children have yet to develop these. Instead they rely on adults to manage their stress levels.
Often your child will become stressed through sensing your feelings of anxiety, rather than experiencing the situation as stressful themselves.
You can’t always predict which situation is going to be stressful for your child. Situations you might find stressful, like moving house or travelling, could actually be a source of enjoyment and stimulation for younger children. Temperament also plays a part too, with some children more at risk of stress than others. Boys are more affected by stress than girls, as are children who were premature at birth.
Often your child will become stressed through sensing your feelings of anxiety, rather than experiencing the situation as stressful themselves. But young children can become highly stressed by stimuli we take for granted, like television news, or overhearing arguments, or leaving a favourite toy at nursery overnight.
Situations like this might not feel particularly difficult to you, but if your child has never experienced it before, then it can be stressful. Researchers have also found that several stress points together often interact with each other in young children, giving a cumulative effect.
The main message for parents is to respond to your child when he does show signs of stress, rather than worrying about trying to predict or avoid stressful situations. Your goal as a parent should be to understand their emotions, support them and show them that you take their worries and signs of anxiety seriously and want to help.
SIGNS OF STRESS
Younger children may find it hard to recognise and verbalise when they are experiencing stress, often expressing their feelings by saying they’re annoyed or angry, or perhaps by making negative statements such as, ‘I’m stupid’.
They also use various strategies to distance themselves emotionally from stressful situations. They might whine, be irritable, withdrawn or extra clingy to express feelings of abandonment, or be aggressive or stubborn to conceal feelings of vulnerability
You might notice your child regressing to an earlier developmental level, having toilet accidents or reverting to thumb sucking. Physical signs of stress include headaches or tummyaches, changes in appetite, bedwetting, nightmares and other sleep disturbances. Children may also pick up nervous habits like hair twirling or fingernail biting.
Crying when you leave and rushing for a cuddle when you return are actually good signs – they show that your child is secure in the relationship with you.
Children are easily thrown by a change in routine and may go on to develop feelings of stress. Parents can help a lot here, by being aware of changes on the horizon and helping children to be prepared. Here are some top triggers:
NEW BABY IN THE FAMILY
The stress in this situation is the feeling your child may have that she’s lost your attention. As she can’t survive on her own, it’s pretty fundamental. Make the preparation time positive by involving your child in fun things like buying new toys. But also briefly warn your child that, ‘Mummy is going to be very busy with this new baby, and sometimes you might feel a bit left out, but remember Mummy and Daddy still love you just as much. When you feel a bit sad or lonely, come and tell Mummy and she’ll try to make it better.’
MOVING FROM COT TO BED
This should be a positive experience; something your child wants to do because it’s ‘grown up’. If he’s reluctant, then maybe he’s not ready for the transition. If you need to move him to make room for a new baby, do it as early in the pregnancy as you can. Don’t do it too close to the birth or you may compound his feelings of desertion and it will be one transition too many. He may start to wonder what else he is going to have to give up, to make room for the usurper.
MOVING OUT OF NAPPIES
As with moving to a grown up bed, you can minimise stress by choosing the right time to make this transition – for instance when there are no other stressful events happening in family life. Be guided by your toddler, and strike when the iron is hot at a moment when he clearly is seeing it as a positive move. Try to deal calmly with any accidents. Your reaction to any setbacks will make a huge difference to his attitude.
Apparently this is one of the three most stressful events for adults, but children are often excited by changes of this sort. However, your child is likely to pick up your feelings of stress, so this is a good time to enlist other people’s help. Invite friends for play dates, ask grandparents to come and help with childcare, and talk to your child about the move in a positive way, but be brief. Don’t turn it into a big deal for him if he doesn’t see it that way.
CHANGES IN DAILY ROUTINE
Starting school or childcare, or when parents return to work, are potentially the biggest stressors of all for children, because they are tied up with feelings of abandonment. Crying when you leave and rushing for a cuddle when you return are actually good signs – they show that your child is secure in the relationship with you. A child who seems indifferent, ignoring you when you return, is probably under more stress than the child who makes a big fuss. Either way, show you care and you understand, and find some relaxing and fun things to do together when you are reunited.
If you’re worried that your child is under stress and you don’t feel confident about handling it yourself, consider consulting a licensed mental health professional, such as a child psychologist. Your health visitor can be a good place to start accessing help.
8 TOP STRESS BUSTERS
Anticipate stressful situations and prepare by explaining what is going to happen (though over-preparing can actually be more stressful than the event itself). Stay brief, watch your child’s reactions and encourage him to ask questions if he wants to know more.
Verbalise it for children. Ask them how they are feeling, give their feelings a name if necessary and stay neutral, accepting whatever they say.
Develop strategies by suggesting ways for your child to cope with situations, such as ‘tell them you don’t like it and walk away’.
Teach relaxation techniques such as ‘take a deep breath’, ‘count to 10’ or ‘imagine a favourite place’.
Practise positive self-talk skills such as ‘I’ll try’ or ‘I think I can do this’.
Model successful coping. If you scream and shout, or use a glass of wine and cigarettes to calm yourself, your child will learn these strategies too.
Move on once you’ve talked about it, change the subject and distract your child with something more cheerful.
Remember you don’t always have to do anything. Just being there and listening can help. It’s not your role to fix everything for your child, but you can help him to learn how to fix it himself.