Child Behavior: A little stress isn’t all bad for kids

Some stress can help kids learn to cope with changes in their lives

It’s no exaggeration to say these are stressful times. On top of our already hectic schedules, we face a constant media barrage regarding the crisis in our local and global economy. As adults, we have hopefully found a means of coping with this stress. But what about the stress our children experience how do they go about coping with internal and external stressors, and how do we know when they are experiencing too much stress?

Many adults consider childhood to be an idyllic and carefree time. This is a misconception. In reality, stress is an inevitable part of any child’s life. Stress helps children learn the coping skills necessary to manage and adapt to new and changing situations they will encounter on a daily basis. In small doses, stress can be beneficial to child, helping to motivate them and make them more productive. But, too much stress can be debilitating.

Stress is a feeling of emotional tension that children experience when they encounter a situation or event that they perceive as a threat. Events themselves are not stressful; rather it is the child’s perception of the event that determines the level of stress the child experiences. The child may feel that he lacks the coping skills to handle the situation.

Take the first day of kindergarten, for example. Alison may run from her mother into the classroom perceiving kindergarten as a fun-filled adventure. Jesse, on the other hand, might cling to his mother like Velcro, interpreting the first day of kindergarten as a frightening separation from what he is comfortable with.

Sources of stress for children

As children grow and develop, their vulnerability to stress changes as does their response to stress. There are normal developmental stressors that all children experience, such as new caregivers, school environments, new friends and classmates, the birth of a sibling, and the physical and emotional changes of adolescence. Throw in overloaded academics, extra-curricular activities and schedules, and you have the potential for stress-related problems.

The most common sources of stress for children include:

  • Family factors – Divorce, separation, arguing between parents, physical or verbal abuse, rejection by parents or parents having expectations beyond a child’s capacity are major sources of stress for a child.
  • Peer relations – Children can be heavily influenced by what other children think about them and how they act toward them.
  • Change – Moving, changes in family routine, changing schools, even new friends can increase a child’s feelings of uncertainty and confusion. Even positive change – making a school team or being in a play or concert – can increase a child’s stress level.
  • Activity overload – Like adults, children need down time. Maybe your child is doing too much!

Make kids stress-resistant

Some children can manage a dozen things at once and withstand multiple environmental stressors without much difficulty. These children seem more resilient or “stress resistant” than others. But why? The following factors influence a child’s susceptibility to stress.

  • Close attachments with at least one caregiver, parent or not, can be a buffer against the adverse effects of multiple stressors, even abuse or neglect by parents.
  • Family harmony – Children from stable, conflict-free families are less likely to succumb to stress  than children from dysfunctional, conflict-laden families.
  • Parenting styles – Parents who give children the opportunity to make decisions and question family parameters increase their children’s self-confidence, making them more capable of facing adversity. 

Too much stress can affect children both physically and emotionally. Your child is experiencing too much stress if he exhibits the following symptoms: Appetite change, tension, fatigue, headaches, insomnia, weight change (loss or gain), frequent colds, stomachaches (even vomiting), being accident prone, rashes, restlessness (foot tapping, finger drumming), “vague” aches and pains, or drug and alcohol use (in adolescence).

Emotional symptoms of excessive stress include anxiety (inability to relax), feelings of frustration (easily discouraged), mood swings, temper tantrums, nightmares, crying spells, verbalizing “no one cares” or “no one can understand me”, depression, excessive worrying, lack of interest in previously enjoyed activities, irritability, or regressive behavior (behaviors that were typical at an earlier age, like clingy or whiny behavior).

Help your kids learn to reduce stress

Childhood should be a time of continuous preparation for coping with problems and events that are potentially stressful. The earlier we learn to cope with and manage the stresses in our lives the more resilient we become.

Avoid over-protection – this usually leaves a child more vulnerable to the impact of any environmental change he may encounter in the future. The way in which a child copes with stress may be even more important to his emotional and physical well being than the frequency and severity of the episodes of stress they encounter.

We can’t change our children’s inborn temperament nor can we change the stressful events in our environment. What we can do as parents is continually model stress management and teach our children effective coping strategies early and often.

Paul Schwartz, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology and Education at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh.