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So Stressed, So Young

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by Rachel Stein, LCSW

We know that adults experience stress as a regular matter of fact. But children? You might not think of children as being susceptible to the stresses of life – after all, we take care of everything for them, don’t we?

Well, America’s children are actually quite stressed, according to the results of a recent survey by the American Psychological Association (APA). Stress can be a precursor to anxiety and depression in children (not to mention the future health problems), so it’s important to recognize the signs of stress in children and work to decrease stress starting now. Also, between the ages of 3 and 6, a tremendous amount of neurological development is taking place. If that development is impacted by undue stress, the consequences could be life-long.

According to the APA survey, which looked at both children and teens, parents greatly underestimate the level of their child’s stress, and children are more worried this year than they were last year. The major worries cited were parents’ financial difficulties, and pressure to do well in school.

For younger children major causes of stress include parental discord (including separation and divorce), difficulties making and keeping friends, and sibling relationship strain.

Importantly, the survey has made it clear that children pick up on parents’ stress, even – and especially – when parents try to keep it from their children. It’s as though parental stress is a flu virus that is unwittingly passed from one family member to another; our kids get it.

What to look out for
  • Your three to six year old might be overly stressed if you see any of the following: frequent complaining of stomachaches and/or headaches, difficulty sleeping (which might include nightmares or night terrors), increased defiance and irritability, or acting overly compliant and clingy with parents.
  • It is not uncommon for a child to use aggression as a way to cope with feeling stressed. She may also regress to younger behaviors (such as wetting the bed or her pants, or thumb-sucking), withdraw, be more fidgety and active, overreact to minor issues, or twist or pull her hair, or pick her nose.
What you can do
  • Limit how much of your stress your children are exposed to. Have the tough conversations when they’re truly out of ear-shot. This doesn’t mean to put on a mask and pretend if you’re upset – children are so perceptive they often know what we don’t tell them. You can give her a concise, age-appropriate version of how you feel, and be sure to reassure her that you are going to be okay. You can say something like, “Mommy is feeling stressed right now, but I’m going to be okay.” Between 3 and 6 is when children begin to develop empathy and self-esteem, so most children at this age will pick up on your upset and want to help. Often children think it’s their fault somehow (this is developmentally appropriate), and will need reassurance that they are not at fault. Here you can focus on the fact that it’s the parents’ job to find the answers, but you can tell her things she can do to help.

You can say, “Maybe you noticed mommy has been worrying. Mommy will figure out how to make her worry better. That’s a mommy job. Your job can be to ______.” You can fill in the blank with things like: play and have fun with your friends; listen to mommy and daddy; be gentle with your sister; help mommy set the table for dinner. It’s important to let kids have opportunities to build competence and connection to their family without taking on burdens that aren’t theirs to carry.

  • Be available to talk, and start the conversation. Tell her you notice the stress you see in her, otherwise she may think she is just going to burden you more by telling you her concerns (or, if she’s younger, she might not even know what’s going on with her mood).
In a calm moment you can say, “I wonder if you’re feeling upset. I noticed you have hitting and yelling a lot more than usual. I wonder if you’re feeling worried about mommy and daddy fighting?” Your child may or may not respond in the moment, but it is important to let her know you’re seeing her upset and are available to talk. Laying the groundwork for good communication about feelings and stress can alleviate much of the burden for children.
  • A professional therapist can help when these conversations feel overwhelming.
  • Ensure your child is getting good nutrition and good sleep. Both of these help bolster your child’s ability to cope with the stress they feel.
  • Help your child come up with solutions to their stress. Paring down a busy schedule, mediating struggles with siblings, engaging teachers or other parents — whatever she needs that she isn’t able to do on her own. Children also might need some encouragement to engage in healthy coping like doing something active or having a good cry.
  • Normalize stress. Children can feel overwhelmed and alone in their feelings, and it can help for them to hear from you that everyone experiences stress sometimes. You can find books where children are stressed to emphasize this point. Mean Soup by Betsy Everitt and Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst are two really good ones.
  • Play with your child. Play is paramount in childhood. While verbal abilities are still developing, imagination is high. Playing with a parent can help a young child who is stressed feel closeness and soothing they might be missing. To help de-stress your child through play let her take the lead, and you be the follower wherever the play takes her. Be sure to sit and be with her while she plays for regular amounts of time everyday – she’ll get the message that you care and are interested in her. And be careful not to judge or guide the play – let her get out all the feelings in play, where it’s contained and safe.
  • Consider play therapy. Play therapy is well-established form of therapy that is very effective in helping children work through feelings, stress in particular. A well-trained play therapist will support you find better ways to reach your child, and will also follow your child’s lead to help her express pent-up emotions that may be holding her back from the regular business of being a growing, thriving person.

While stress may be unavoidable even in childhood, parents have the power to make a big impact in how much stress their child holds onto.

Rachel Stein, LCSW is a psychotherapist in private practice in West Los Angeles. She also leads Mommy and Me groups at the Pump Station and Nurtury, and is a certified Reflective Parenting Program group leader. She can be found at www.therapyinwestla.com

The Mother Company aims to support parents and their children, providing thought-provoking web content and products based in social and emotional learning for children ages 3-6. Check out the first episode of our DVD series, “Ruby’s Studio: The Feelings Show”, which helps young children understand and express their feelings. We want to be a parenting tool – for you!

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Comments (1)

  1. Ryan

    My daughter Shayla is 3 years old; her mother and I are going through a divorce now. I see a lot of stress she is experiencing from the separation/divorce and I’m looking to gain knowledge on play therapy, so I can help her. It just says join the conversation and put my email…
    ~ Father Ryan