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Oregon Family Magazine

Early Childhood Stress – Helping Kids Cope

07/01/2009 ● By Anonymous
Stress is a part of everyday life, one of the things that most adults are accustomed to dealing with, but the same “stressed out” adults are typically surprised to learn just how common stress is for those in early childhood.  The difference is that life experience has taught adults coping mechanisms, or has at least provided the tools and resources to seek out assistance when faced with stressors.  However children are at a great disadvantage.  They often do not understand the cause of the stress, typically cannot communicate their feelings and/or frustrations, and are at a lost for how to combat it.  Thus, it’s up to the adults to learn how to identify sources, recognize the symptoms and become proactive in minimizing children’s exposure to undue stressors.

Three Types of Stress

There are three primary types of stress that can affect children.  The first is positive stress.   Positive stress occurs when children are exposed to brief stressful situations.  Some examples are moving to a new neighborhood, starting school, getting inoculations, getting punished, etc. Positive stress is actually a good form of stress, as children must learn how to effectively deal with stressors in order to fully cope as adults.  In supportive environments children can learn to overcome positive stress and thrive from their experiences.

The second form of stress is tolerable stress.  Tolerable stress occurs over a short period of time but the situation is much more intense, and has a more long-term effect than positive stress.  An accident involving a close friend or family member, the death of someone close, hearing the details of/living through a natural disaster, or a separation/divorce are all examples of tolerable stress.  With on–going parental/adult support a child can rebound from tolerable stress and it can actually evolve into a positive stress situation.

The third type of stress, toxic stress can occur as a result of tolerable stress left untreated or the methods used being ineffective; or due to prolonged exposure to highly stressful situations like abuse, neglect and grief.  While adult support is recommended to help children deal with positive and tolerable stress, it is mandatory in helping children recover from toxic stress.  Children simply do not possess the skills to get themselves back to a positive mental place on their own, and such prolonged exposure can result in permanent behavioral/emotional changes.


Stress is caused when expectations go against the status quo.  Like adults, children are creatures of habit.  They have learned what their typical daily existence is like and when that situation is not the same they will typically experience some level of stress.   However, the level of stress will depend on the situation, the temperament of the child, and the reaction of others.

In addition, once stress takes hold it is often very easy for other stressors to compound the problem.  Thus, alleviating childhood stress as quickly as possible is ideal for both short and long-term benefits.

Symptoms of Early Childhood Stress

The physiological symptoms of stress in children are elevated blood pressure, increased heart rate and a substantial rise in hormone levels.  But as most parents are not medical professionals and may not easily recognize these symptoms, they must rely on other observations.  Children are not experts at communication.  Fortunately for parents, children’s feelings regarding a subject or situation can be made known through behavior.

Some key indicators of childhood stress are anxiety symptoms like fidgeting, chewing on things, thumb/finger sucking, hair pulling, bed wetting and excessive talking.  Parents may also begin hearing complaints from teachers regarding poor academic performance, lack of concentration and behavioral changes.  Parents may also be subjected to frequent complaints of headaches and stomachaches and may witness signs for fatigue resulting from difficulty sleeping.  A change in overall demeanor or attitude could be a symptom of stress.  When a normally outgoing child becomes quiet and withdrawn, or when a typically quiet child becomes disruptive, the adults in his/her life should take notice and try to determine the possible cause.

Reversing or Heading-Off Early Childhood Stress

If you think your child may be experiencing, or may be on route towards burnout from stress, there are a number of things that can be done to help them cope with the stressors they are facing.  First, as the adult, make yourself available and let children know that they will be listened to if/when they want to communicate with you, but don’t wait for them to come to you – make the first step. Teach children coping mechanisms by example, role playing or through the experiences of characters in books that children can relate to.  Work on building their self-confidence.  Teach children to be confident about themselves, their abilities, and their passions and to embrace change as a challenge and not something to be feared.

If you know of any potentially upsetting events that are about to take place, don’t let them walk into them blindly, try to prepare them for the situation.  The situation could be as mundane as a dental appointment or as serious as a hospital stay for a loved one, or the preparation for the death of a friend, family member, or beloved pet.  Being proactive is an ideal way to incorporate discussions and other tools such as books, movies, or other people to help minimize stress.

It’s a fact that routines, schedules and planning are excellent tools for effectively managing day-to-day life.  This is also true for children.  Knowing what is expected of them, when they are expected and where they have to be can seriously alleviate stress.  As children get older they learn to tell time, how to pack their bags for their different activities and how to get themselves ready.  Thus, the establishment of a routine will help them feel like they have a bit more control over their environment.

All children require a specific amount of sleep each night according to their age, and a healthy diet in order to properly function and continue to thrive.  Sleep deprivation, vitamin deficiencies and known or unknown food allergies are often at the root of many behavioral issues and will typically be exacerbated during stressful situations.  Therefore establishing a routine to ensure that an appropriate bedtime and a creative, fun and interesting menu be maintained could help parents ease the behavioral aspects of stress in children.

If scheduling is a source of stress, perhaps a scheduling moratorium should be implemented.  As it is often very difficult to pull a child from an activity after making the initial time and financial commitment, parents should discuss the ins and outs of all activities with children in advance.  However, if faced with the necessity of having to abandon an activity, parents could take it upon themselves to find substitutes which would allow them the option of bowing out of an activity gracefully.

Despite the fact that children have it “easy” in comparison to the pressures being dealt with by adults, the truth remains they do have their own stressors and are being exposed to the situations being faced by parents, peers and/or other loved ones.  In today’s society early childhood stress is a very common occurrence and cannot be avoided by any cultural or socioeconomic group.  Despite the best of intentions children are and will continue to be exposed to their environments and must rely on the adults in their lives to filter, buffer, and mitigate the situations they can; and explain and help them manage the ones they cannot.  While positive stress is a fantastic learning experience and will help children learn to better handle stressful situations in adult years, the ideal is to remember that children are children and to let them be children as long as possible.

Kim Green-Spangler, B.S. Ed and M.S. Eng., is a freelance writer, coach, wife and mother.  She specializes in topics pertaining to family life, fitness, parenting, and home-based businesses.