Helping Children Cope with
While some stress is normal and even healthy, children today seem to
encounter many stressful life events at earlier ages. Stress shows itself
in children by complaints about stomachaches, being nervous, trouble
sleeping, anger flares, and infections.
Stress is a life event or situation that causes imbalance in an
individual's life. An unhealthy response to stress occurs when the demands
of the stressor exceed an individual's coping ability. Often stress
results from something that is beyond our control. Control has a great
deal to do with levels of stress.
Some stress is normal. Daily and life challenges can be expected. For
example, most children will attend school and will have to go through many
transitions. Most adolescents will have to grapple with their sense of
identity to determine where they "fit." Being afraid of the dark
and feeling peer pressure are predictable stressors. Other stressors are
not as predictable. Disruptions to what is considered normal for the child
cause problems with stress. Small amounts of stress, as experienced before
a test or when meeting new people, are necessary to present challenges for
greater learning. Simple stress experienced when learning a new skill or
playing an exciting game raise a person's level of excitement or pressure
above the normal level.
WHEN IS STRESS DISTRESS?
Problems begin when ordinary stress becomes too much
stress or distress. There are a variety of reasons for children to feel
stress. Death, divorce, remarriage, moving, long illness, abuse, family or
community violence, natural disaster, fear of failure, and cultural
conflict may each heighten stress. Under stress, the heart rate and
breathing are at a higher speed and muscles are tense. Multiple stressors
worsen the stress level and the length of the stress. Our bodies need
relief from stress to reestablish balance.
Reactions to stress vary with the child's stage of
development, ability to cope, the length of time the stressor continues,
intensity of the stressor, and the degree of support from family, friends,
and community. The two most frequent indicators that children are stressed
are change in behaviors and regression of behaviors. Children under stress
change their behavior and react by doing things that are not in keeping
with their usual style. Behaviors seen in earlier phases of development,
such as thumb sucking and regression in toileting, may reappear.
SOME OF THE TYPICAL SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS OF STRESS FOR CHILDREN
Typically, preschoolers lack self-control, have no
sense of time, act independently, are curious, may wet the bed, have
changes in eating habits, have difficulty with sleep or speech, and cannot
tell adults how they are feeling.
Preschoolers under stress each react differently. Some behaviors may
include irritability, anxiety, uncontrollable crying, trembling with
fright, eating or sleep problems. Toddlers may regress to infant
behaviors, feel angry and not understand their feelings, fear being alone
or without their parent, withdraw, bite, or be sensitive to sudden or loud
noises. Feelings of sadness or anger may build inside of them. They may
become angry or aggressive, have nightmares, or be accident prone.
Typical elementary-age children can whine when
things don't go their way, be aggressive, question adults, try out new
behaviors, complain about school, have fears and nightmares, and lose
Reactions to stress may include withdrawal, feelings of being unloved,
being distrustful, not attending to school or friendships, and having
difficulty naming their feelings. Under stress, they may worry about the
future, complain of head or stomachaches, have trouble sleeping, have a
loss of appetite, or need to urinate frequently.
Preteens and Adolescents:
Adolescents typically are rebellious, have
"growing" pains and skin problems, may have sleep disturbances,
may go off by themselves, be agitated, and act irresponsibly.
Adolescents and teens under stress may feel angry longer, feel
disillusioned, lack self-esteem, and have a general distrust of the world.
Sometimes adolescents will show extreme behaviors ranging from doing
everything they are asked, to rebelling and breaking all of the rules and
taking part in high-risk behaviors (drugs, shoplifting, skipping school).
Depression and suicidal tendencies are concerns.
BUILDING SAFETY NETS FOR STRESS
Just as children's reactions are each different, so
are their coping strategies. Children can cope through tears or tantrums
or by retreating from unpleasant situations. They could be masterful at
considering options, finding compromising solutions, or finding substitute
comfort. Usually a child's thinking is not developed fully enough to think
of options or think about the results of possible actions. Children who
live in supportive environments and develop a range of coping strategies
become more resilient. Resiliency is the ability to bounce back from
stress and crisis. For many children, a supportive environment is not
present and many children do not learn a set of positive coping
Factors that support children and create a safety net for them during
stressful times include:
- A healthy relationship with at least one parent
or close adult.
- Well-developed social skills.
- Well-developed problem-solving skills.
- Ability to act independently.
- A sense of purpose and future.
- At least one coping strategy.
- A sense of positive self-esteem and personal
- Religious commitment.
- Ability to focus attention.
- Special interests and hobbies.
Families can provide further protection by:
- developing trust, particularly during the first
year of life.
- being supportive family and friends.
- showing caring and warmth.
- having high, clear expectations without being
- providing ways for children to contribute to the
family in meaningful ways.
- being sensitive to family cultural belief
- building on family strengths.
Children who live in supportive environments and
develop a range of coping strategies become more resilient.
It is not necessary to be a therapist to help
children cope with stress. One key element in reducing stress is a
stress-free environment. A stress-free environment is based on social
support, having the ability to find hope by thinking through solutions,
and being able to anticipate stress and learn ways to avoid it.
Social support means having people to lean on during
difficult times. Parents who listen, friends to talk to, hugs, and help in
thinking through solutions are ways children feel support.
Notice them. Well-developed observation
skills are essential. Observe for more quarrels with playmates, poor
concentration, or bed-wetting.
Praise children. Encourage children and show you care. Be
Acknowledge feelings. Let children know it is okay to feel angry,
alone, scared, or lonely. Give children the names for their feelings and
words to express how they are feeling.
Have children view the situation more positively. Some stressors
make the child feel ashamed. Shaming truly affects self-esteem.
Structure activities for cooperation, not competition. This
allows individuals to go at their own pace and increases the learning of
Involve parents, family members, and friends. They can read books
together, encouraging openness and listening. They also can ensure good
nutrition and proper rest.
Host regular, safe talks. Members of the family or classroom
group who feel comfortable can share experiences, fears, and feelings.
Adults can recognize the steps a child uses to cope and help others
learn from these experiences. Hold regular family conferences or
classroom meetings to plan activities or to suggest solutions.
THINKING IT THROUGH CLEARLY
Children must learn to think through a problem. Some
specific strategies include self-talk, writing about the problem, and
making a plan. Thinking positively and thinking up real solutions is
Show how they can cope in a healthy way.
Keep calm, control anger, think through a plan, and share the plan with
Be proactive. Plan plenty of playtime, inform children about
changes, and plan activities where children can play out their feelings.
Books, art, puppetry, play, and writing help children think through and
name their feelings.
Develop thinking skills. Help children think through the
consequences of actions. Pose situations (friendship, stealing,
emergencies) and think through actions. Ask open-ended questions about
what the solutions to problems could include, such as "What could
we do about this?"
Help children tell reality from fantasy. A child's behavior, for
example, did not cause his or her parents' separation.
As an adult, focus on the stressor. Model how thinking through
options for dealing with difficult people, situations, or problems helps
you find solutions.
Find individual talk time. Talk about stressful events and
Use stories and books. Stories can help the child identify with
the feelings of the character and tap their own feelings to ease them
out for discussion and to discuss coping strategies.
Use art for expressing feelings. Paint, clay, sand, and water all
allow for active expression.
Encourage children to act out coping skills. Playing with dolls,
boxes, toy telephones, puppets, blocks, cars, and similar items provides
another avenue to bring feelings out for discussion.
Give the child some degree of control. Children should be allowed
to choose within the framework of what is expected. Allow them to make
some manageable decisions, such as how to arrange their room, to voice
their opinion in some family decisions, which activity to complete.
FORESEE STRESSFUL SITUATIONS AND AVOID THEM
If we can foresee an event, we can often block it as
a stressor. Ignoring problems, changing the subject, not worrying about
it, or changing an action can be coping strategies.
- Identify what could cause stress and plan ways
to avoid it or how to deal with it.
- Encourage children to be proud of themselves in
some way. Developing a special interest or skill can serve as a
source of pride and self-esteem.
- Use gentle humor or read a silly book to create
laughter and to reframe negative thoughts into opportunities.
- Offer personal space. Modify the environment.
Quiet space and alone time should be allowed. (Adjust noise levels
and check the traffic pattern.)
- Teach relaxation and deep breathing techniques.
Ask children to close their eyes and imagine a quiet and or happy
place (the beach with waves, a birthday party, a warm cup of cocoa).
- Teach conflict-resolution strategies. Teach
children to think through alternatives ways to solve problems. Who
else can help solve given problems? What additional information do
As adults, we can make sure we don't add to
children's stress by expecting them to act in adult ways. We can praise,
be positive, seek positive solutions, help children name their feelings,
teach fairness, help children learn to like themselves, be patient, teach
honesty, and give lots of love and encouragement, particularly during
Reprinted with permission from the National
Network for Child Care - NNCC. DeBord, K. (1996). *Helping children cope
with stress*. Raleigh, NC: North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service.