Children, Stress, and Coping

Adults experience stress, children experience stress, we all experience stress from one source or another each day. School, family life, and social relationships are major sources of stress for children and adolescents.  Stressful situations and experiences may be either negative or positive.  Some potentially pleasurable sources of stress include going to a party or dance, winning an award, doing well academically, being the center of attention, having a special friend, and the addition of a child to the family. Beginning school, at any new level, is also a potential source of stress. 

Sometimes, children tell us that they are experiencing stress by using words such as, “I’m bored,” “No one likes me,” or “That work is dumb.” Sometimes they manifest stress in their facial expressions and demeanor. At times, they may either have trouble getting to sleep or sleep more. They may have a lowered resistance to illness. Irritability or anger may come more easily than is typical. Frequently, children demonstrate the impact of stress in their lives through behavior. They might seek items of comfort, such as a stuffed animal or another favorite toy or possession. They could show increased movement or become less active. They may seek more frequent closeness with their parent(s), may engage in endless questioning, or may act out aggressively. They sometimes shut down or demonstrate very resistant behavior. It is much easier to respond to a request with, “No, I won’t,” than to acknowledge,

“I can’t.”  

Generally, when children are experiencing stress, they need a place to feel safe and comfortable. Increased and consistent structure in their day-to-day life can also be beneficial. Ritual and routine are helpful. One-to-one time with a parent is invaluable. Often, children say little to parents who inquire about their day. However, once they begin to wind down and prepare for bed, it is not unusual then for children to want to have heart-to-heart conversations. 

When our children report or demonstrate through nonverbal means that they are experiencing stress, what tools do we have to share with them? How can we help? Studies reviewing the impact of relaxation training indicate that such instruction can have positive results. Two excellent sources to help children with relaxation are Stress Relief for Kids:Taming Your Dragons by Marti Belknap and A Boy and a Turtle: Visualization, Meditation, and Relaxation Bedtime Story  by Lori Lite. We can help our children improve their social relationships through helping them to acquire social problem-solving skills. Most social problem-solving involves steps in which individuals identify the problem, establish a goal, brainstorm options for solutions, contemplate the consequences (What might happen if I choose that option?), select one problem-solving option, and evaluate the results. An individual child may react to social stress by becoming overly passive or aggressive. Assertiveness is the midpoint in that continuum, and some techniques aimed at helping to reduce stress include teaching assertiveness skills. As parents and educators, we can help children become more assertive by discussing their personal rights and the rights of others, addressing helpful and hurtful thoughts that decrease or increase anxiety, modeling assertive behavior and role-playing, providing opportunities for practice, and positively reinforcing even small improvements in assertive behavior. When children report thoughts that are irrational (hurtful), it can be more helpful for us to reframe those thoughts than to rebut them (e.g., child’s statement: “Nobody likes me.” Adult responses: “You told me that you played with  ___ and ___ yesterday.” “Your teacher told me that ___ appreciates how kind you have been to him/her.”)

Though hearing us when they are feeling stress may be difficult for our children and seeing them under undue stress may be difficult for us, they do look to us as the adults to provide them with security and comfort, with knowledge and skills, with reasonable expectations and the encouragement to meet the goals they set. They need our support, and, at times, we may need the support of others.

May we be open to ways of helping our children grow,