Addressing Stress in Children

Stress in children can be caused by a variety of experiences and perceptions. It could come from hearing or seeing frightening images on television or on social media or even as a result of discussions with peers at school.

Be careful little eyes what you see

Diane Wagenhals, Program Director, Master Trainer, Curricula Writer, Researcher, Mother and Grandmother

We live in a world where information is shared almost instantly as it occurs, anywhere on the planet. Unfortunately the media capitalizes on the strong emotional impact of highly graphic, terrifying stories. Worse, children can get caught in the emotional crossfire of this often sensationalized information.

Stressful behavior

Children often are stressed if they are worried for their safety, if parents are emotionally or physically unavailable, if something frightening happens to them—like an accident or illness requiring medical interventions—or if they experience some kind of significant loss.

Loss can be the death of a significant person, but there can also be less obvious losses. For example, those that might affect a child are: moving from a familiar neighborhood, worrying that parents might be divorcing, having to say goodbye to a favorite teacher, or really anything that involves having to let go of something that is cherished.

When children experience significant stress, they need first and foremost to feel safe, both physically and emotionally. If the fears are about physical safety, such as worrying that terrorists will hurt them or someone they love, parents can provide reassurance by pointing out all the ways their safety is ensured. They can speak to the presence of police, firefighters, and other adults who have the job of protecting our country, our cities, our towns and all our citizens.

Helping children know they are safe emotionally can be more challenging. 

Children often are unable to recognize or identify their own feelings and may not exhibit root behavior a parent would associate with fear or stress. Parents can be unaware that children are feeling frightened or stressed because children can be very masterful about concealing those feelings, especially if in the past those feelings have been discounted or minimized.

It is very important for parents to be careful not to discount or minimize when children share or even visually look frightened or stressed. Do not say things like, “You shouldn’t feel like that,” or “You are just being silly,” or  “Just stop thinking about that – here, have a cookie and that will make you feel better,” or  “You are being too dramatic.” 

These kinds of messages minimize children’s feelings and make it hard for them to talk about those feelings and the beliefs associated with them.  If they don’t have ways to talk about feelings and thoughts, these can stay trapped inside, often becoming more exaggerated because they aren’t able to share and process them in emotionally healthy ways.

By being able to share feelings and thoughts freely, without fear of ridicule or criticism, children can work through those feelings and thoughts and can regain a sense of safety, helping to reduce their stress.

Take your child’s fears seriously

Children need adults to take their fears seriously and to give them opportunities to talk about what is frightening to them and why. Then parents can give children information to provide specific ways their safety is being protected.

Basically, children need to receive the following messages: I am loved and cherished by my family. My family will embrace my fears without criticizing or shaming me. You will believe me when I say I’m scared or upset, even if what I think or feel does not make sense to you. The point is that it makes sense to me!

In order to appreciate and accept what children are thinking, feeling or believing, you need to spend time listening and attending. Additionally, if you can provide some reassurance and encouragement to them so they can recognize the protective elements in their world,  your children are less likely to be overwhelmed by fearful thoughts, feelings and beliefs that create  stress in their inner worlds.

Invitation to reflect:

  1. Do you have memories of being stressed or afraid as a child? If so, to what extent did your parents nurture you, comfort you, listen and then reassure you? If not, how did their responses make you feel? Sometimes by remembering our own childhood experiences, we can become clear about what our own children need.
  2. How aware are you of your first responses when your children say or show they are stressed or feeling afraid? Are those responses accepting, caring, and compassionate?
  3. How aware are you of moments when you might think that a child is overreacting or only needs to be reassured but not really heard when feeling stressed or afraid? How can you change those responses to ones that show appreciation for feelings and beliefs?

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Institute for Professional Education and Development, Lakeside Educational Network