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Stress and Young Children

Learning how to manage stress is an important part of healthy child development. Some stress can be positive for example; stress can motivate us to get things done or move out of harm’s reach. However, prolonged exposure to stress can have a damaging effect (external link) on children’s learning, behaviour, and health. We can help children to develop a healthy response to stress to prevent negative long-term effects.

Stress in children can sometimes show up in unexpected ways:

  • Physical changes:
    • Tummy aches/headache
    • Bedwetting
    • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Behavioural changes:
    • Mood swings
    • Acting out, becoming aggressive
    • Overreacting to minor problems
    • Developing self-comfort habits such as rocking, thumb sucking, hair twirling, nail biting
  • Social/emotional changes:
    • Trouble concentrating
    • Becoming withdrawn or spending a lot of time alone
    • Difficulty separating
    • Experiencing nightmares
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Common sources of stress in young children can include:

  • Being overscheduled with not enough time to play or relax
  • Overhearing parents argue, fight or speak about their worries e.g. trouble at work, financial concerns, disagreements
  • Fears (external link) such as; fear of failure, separation from parents, managing new or unfamiliar situations
  • Parents and/or caregivers having unrealistic expectations of their skills and abilities (external link)
  • Pressure to ‘fit in’
  • Lack of consistent routines and/or discipline
  • Death of a family member, friend or pet
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Eating healthy, being active and getting enough sleep (external link) can go a long way in not only helping children cope better with stress but also their parents! What else can be done?

Helping your child to feel secure (external link) is one of the most important ways to ensure they will bounce back (external link) from stressful situations. Security is built in children by:

  • Providing them with unconditional love, accepting them for what they say or do
  • Being available to your child; whether they want to talk or just cuddle
  • Really listening to your child and being alert to the obvious and less obvious signs that your child might be stressed
  • Building predictable routines into your child’s day
  • Using positive discipline strategies consistently
  • Anticipating and preparing your child for potentially stressful situations such as starting kindergarten
  • Reducing stressors e.g. balance scheduled activities with lots of time to play so that your child has time to unwind and relax
  • Letting your child make mistakes. When your child sees that when mistakes happen all is still good they will be more likely to try again
  • Helping them to develop a positive outlook. A positive outlook (external link) can change a challenging situation into a more manageable one!
  • Laughing together. Playing music. Dancing. Singing! It really does strengthen connections and reduce the ‘stress load’
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Helping a young child successfully manage their stress will help them to develop a ‘tool kit (external link)’ for the future. Honing these skills can include:

  • Letting your child know that it is okay to feel angry, scared or anxious, it is what you do about those feelings that matters
  • If they can’t talk about their feelings – talk about yours. Let them know how you handle difficult feelings
  • Being there for them. Express your confidence that they can handle the situation
  • Coaching them in taking three deep breaths. Relaxation strategies learned early in life become part of who we are
  • Letting them know it is okay to ask for help, no one can do it alone
  • Helping them to problem solve and come up with alternative solutions
  • Remembering to praise them for managing a difficult situation

When children feel understood and accepted they are more likely to be able to calm themselves and handle stressful situations. If your child shows symptoms that concern you seek help. Consult your healthcare provider or contact HaltonParents.

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