Helping Young Children Cope with Stress
By Lori Carraway
Washington State University, Cooperative Extension, Snohomish County
Barry is going to the hospital to have his tonsils removed. Judy’s papa is in the
Navy and has been deployed for 6 months. Bethany has a new baby brother.
Esther’s mom and dad are getting a divorce. Shirley attends childcare now that
mom is working full time. Mavis’ grandma just died. David has become scared of
the big boys at childcare.
Different children, different situations, but, potentially, similar reactions. Each of
these children is experiencing change and may also be reacting to stress.
Stress is the body’s reaction to a demand that is beyond the person’s ability to
cope or to a demand that taxes personal resources (Lazarus & Launier, 1978).
While some young children seem to flow with changes, most need adult help and
support to adjust to situations that are out of their control.
Some stressors come from inside. A toothache or Chicken Pox usually limit
children’s coping resources. Other stressors are outside, but affect us internally.
Hearing mom and dad argue can be exhausting and frightening. Being ridiculed
by peers can create anxiety, illnesses, and wishes to avoid school. Some
stressors are chronic, like living with illness, constant criticism, or frequent abuse.
Something stressful to one person may not be stressful to another, because
humans place different meanings on the same experiences.
Young children have difficulty talking about what they are feeling. Usually they
just react. Therefore, adults need to tune in to changes in children’s behavior.
Symptoms of stress in might include: withdrawl; daydreaming; temper tantrums;
regression to bed-wetting; clinging; preoccupation with monsters or threatening
figures; restless wandering; disturbed bodily functions (like soiling or wetting long
after toilet training is complete); grinding teeth during sleep; inability to focus on
an activity or directions; excessive self-stimulation; aggression toward others; or
nightmares (Honig, 1993). Emergence of these behaviors or the presence of
several symptoms could indicate stress.
Adults might find the following strategies useful:
a. Model calmness and self-control. SHOW children appropriate, positive
ways to deal with stress through your own actions.
b. Provide body contact. Hold, hug, touch more often and stay closer than
usual when a child is stressed. Body contact can provide security.
c. Put predictability in the day: Establish ROUTINES and RITUALS for
children to count on. Consistently read a book before bedtime, rub backs
at nap, wash hands before snack, and/or give warnings before clean-up.
d. Allow extra time. Stressed children may need more time to complete a task,
or to start something new. Give extra time for transitions, offer gentle
warnings, and help children change gears.
e. Partner with one another. Parents and teachers can share observations and
feedback. They might discuss ways to support the child. They might agree
to reinforce coping skills at home and at school. When stress stretches
parents too thin, teachers can be superb resources, giving comfort to
children and relief/support to parents.
f. Provide nutritious food and time to rest. Stress uses our energy and taxes
our systems. When households are chaotic, routines get jumbled, but
children still need adequate rest and nutritious meals.
g. Acknowledge feelings. Help children to “talk” about the situation. Accept
feelings, despite any discomfort with them. Bibliotherapy (stories that
parallel the child’s situation) puppets, dramatic play, and art, can help
children express feelings.
h. Help children separate fantasy and reality. Preschoolers use “magical think-
ing” (I MADE the truck drive by because I was thinking about a truck) and
they might feel responsible for a death or a divorce. Joey needs to know
that grandpa’s accident did not happen because Joey was mad at him.
i. Decrease competition. Design classroom activities and family outings to
eliminate competition. Plan cooperative activities and expect children to
help and cooperate. Requiring helpfulness increases “children’s sense of
effectiveness and coping” (Honig, 1993).
j. Listen. On a one-to-one basis, find a quiet place, encourage the child to talk,
and listen attentively to concerns. Hear what might be threatening or
frightening. Help to generate alternative reactions. Help children think
about what else they might do in a situation that scares or upsets them.
k. Treat for stress. Sometimes exceptions to routines are needed. Sit next to
the child, give him an extra nap, allow him to color during naptime, or lie in
your lap during story time. Sometimes, during very stressful periods, we
need to do whatever is comforting.
All of us experience stress. When a parent is severely stressed, children are very
likely to be affected. Learning to deal with stress takes time, experience, and
personal resources. Most young children need adult support, familiar settings,
predictable routines, some sense of control, and time to learn coping skills.
Honig, A. (1993) Research in Review: Stress and Coping in Children. In McCracken (Ed.) Reducing Stress
in Young Children’s Lives. Washington DC: NAEYC.
Lazarus, R.S., & Lanier R. (1978) Stress-related transactions between person and environment. In L. S.
Pervin & M. Lewis (Eds.) Perspectives in interactional psychology. New York:Plenum.