Within the domain of child and family wellness it is important to consider the influences of stress on young children. Recognizing the symptoms of stress and teaching appropriate coping strategies can be protective factors to decrease childhood stress which can contribute to anxiety and depression.1 Stress reduction is important for psychological and physical health of children and contributes to healthier family and other social relationships.
What is Stress?
As humans we need stress in our lives to stimulate and motivate us. We experience stress even before we are born. As children grow, how they interact with their environment and the kind of feedback children get from these interactions influence how stress affects them physically, emotionally, and socially. Reactions to stressors can be described as positive, tolerable, or toxic.2 Stress is perceived in different ways by different people. When people are stressed, the circuits in the brain activate hormones and other chemicals throughout the body. Prolonged exposure to these hormones can impair the immune system and impact learning as well. When left unchecked, tolerable stress can move into toxic stress.
Stress as Positive
Undula is a fourth grade female who is preparing for a big math test in school. She is struggling with division and her parents help her by getting out the flash cards and quizzing her the night before the test. Undula wants to do well on this test, as math is her favorite subject. The morning of the test, her heart is beating a little faster and she is feeling thirsty, but she knows she will do her best because she studied hard. She remembers to take deep breaths before beginning the test as her mother showed her the night before. Undula feels in control of this situation and she knows the test will soon be over.
Stress as Tolerable
Paul is 12 years old and his favorite dog, Buster, just died. Buster had been Paul’s dog since he can remember and he is not only feeling sad, but he now feels like he doesn’t have any friends either. He is having trouble sleeping since Buster is no longer in his room and he doesn’t feel like eating anything. Jonathan, Paul’s friend, comes over and brings his new puppy so the boys can play together. While Paul is still feeling sad, he decides to play with Jonathan and the puppy. Paul begins to see life in a more positive way because he knows Jonathan is his friend and will help him through this sad time.
Stress as Toxic
If Paul had chosen to stay in the house and not eat over a long period of time, the loss of his dog can promote the stress he feels to become toxic and chronic, having long lasting negative effects on his body, his ability to learn, and his relationships with family and friends. Paul’s family, teachers, and friends might see some of the symptoms below.
Identifying Stressor in Children
Children, like adults, interpret stressors differently. As professionals, parents, and community members, it is important to watch for the warning signs that stress might be moving toward a toxic level so appropriate interventions can be implemented. Some key indicators of childhood stress can include:
- Changes in moods
- Shifts in sleeping patterns
- Changes in eating habits
- Lack of interest in things that were previously interesting
- Pervasive anger
- Increased agitation
- Spacing out
- Decreased energy
- Inability to concentrate
- Stomach aches
Helping Children Manage Stress
Just as adults need coping skills to manage daily stressors, so do children. Psychology researchers and theorists emphasize the important influence of the home and school environment where children learn to cope with daily stressors in either positive or negative ways. Psychologist Albert Bandura’s social learning theory reinforces that children learn what they live.3 How do you, as an adult, handles stress in your life? The children around you will emulate your strategies whether the coping mechanisms are healthy or unhealthy. Healthy stress management techniques can include:
Support at home–providing an arena for children to discuss their daily activities helps them put situations in proportion and gives perspective. In the home environment, where and when are the times that children and adults can talk about their day? Some families use the time in the car together to discuss issues, and others find game night or watching TV together as a time to help children express their feelings about what is going on. Taking a walk with your children is an excellent way to provide time to talk. When children know they have the support of primary caregivers, they are more likely to discuss troubling issues.
Support from the school–mental health professionals on the school campus can include school counselors, school psychologists, and social workers, all of whom are trained to work with children who are experiencing stress. It is important for children to know whom at school to go to if they are stressed. These trained professionals can offer group, peer, or individual counseling, and other programs to help children deal with their stress and feelings before things escalate. Schools also offer clubs and other activities that can provide support for children so they develop a balance in their lives that include activities that are fun for them. In the classroom teachers can incorporate times when children can talk about issues that affect them such as conflicts on the playground.
General Stress Management Techniques
- Teach children to be aware of how they are breathing. Stress is both physiological and psychological, and breathing deeply brings more oxygen to the brain; this can lower the negative effects of the hormones that create symptoms of stress.
- Discuss with children how they have control over their lives. Feeling a loss of control is a common symptom of stress. Work with children so they can see where they do have control and where they can decide to make changes to reduce stress.
- Teach children to be aware of how their body reacts to stress in the early stages. Do the palms sweat; does the eye start to twitch? Recognizing early symptoms and helping children have a plan of what to do when these appear can keep stress under control.
- Provide down time for children. In our modern day of technology and external stimulation, many children do not have time to relax and reflect on how they are feeling. Teach children to think about how they feel and that family relaxation is part of maintaining overall health and wellness for children and family alike.
Dr. Elizabeth Smith Clark
Dr. Liz Clark has a Bachelor of Science degree in Child Development, and two Master of Science degrees, one in School Counseling and one in Organizational Behavior. She earned her PhD in Human development. Dr. Clark has worked in higher education for over 30 years, as a faculty, consultant, and administrator. She has taught online for nine years working with undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral students. Additionally, Dr. Clark has worked with state and local government and nonprofit agencies in California and around the US.
Dr. Clark regularly presents at national conferences, both online and face to face, on topics that include adult learning, stress, transformative learning, and internationalizing the curriculum. Most recently she presented at the Caribbean Regional Conference of Psychology in Nassau, Bahamas. Recent publications include Transformative Learning in the Online Environment, (2009), and she is in the process of revising an article for publication on the invitations for transformative learning in the online environment. Dr. Clark’s research interests include adult and transformative learning, and how Place influences our meaning making activities.
Dr. Clark is an active member of the International Society of Positive Psychology, The Society for the Teaching of Psychology, and the Society for Research in Child Development. She has been with Kaplan University since 2006.
1. G. Draag, G.V. Breukelen, G. Kok, G., and C. Hossman, "Learn Young, Learn Fair,” Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, vol. 50, no. 9 (2009): 1185-1195.
2. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “The Effects of Childhood Stress on Health Across the Lifespan,” accessed November 2011.
3. Albert Bandura, Social Foundations of Thought and Action (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1986).