When is Child Stress, Distress

Normal stress is ok. It may even be good for children to learn to manage stress as they grow.  When stress becomes too much, however, it becomes distress. How can you tell in children? What causes stress? Stressful happenings may include death, divorce, illness, violence, disaster, abuse or even child encounters such as bullying or fear of failure. But how can parents tell if a child is DIStressed? The two most frequent indicators that children are stressed are changes in behaviors and regression of behaviors. Children under stress change their behavior and react by doing things that are not like their usual style. Behaviors seen in earlier phases of development, such as thumb sucking and regression in toileting, may reappear. Reactions to stress vary with

  • the child?'s stage of development,
  • ability or strategies to cope,
  • the length of time the stressor continues, and
  • the intensity of the stressor.
    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 responsibility
  • Ability to focus attention
  • Special interests and hobbies

Families can teach stress management by:

  • developing trust with the child, as early as the first year of life
  • providing a stress free, supportive environments
  • teaching coping strategies to children
  • being a model for how to handle stress in a positive way
  • listening to children, naming their feelings and acting in a caring manner 
  • having high, clear expectations without being overly rigid
  • providing ways for children to contribute to the family in meaningful ways
  • helping children think through problem-solving strategies
  • find individual safe time to talk and share feelings
  • use art, stories, and books to help child express feelings in concrete ways.

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 difficult times. 



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