Recognizing Stress in Children 

The horrific attacks in Paris could rekindle the sense of terror most of us felt on 9/11—feelings of helplessness, overwhelming stress and fear for ourselves, our children, families and communities. With news stories and images from France circulating through so many sources on social media, our children may be exposed to information and pictures that can sharply raise their levels of anxiety and stress.

Observe children for changes in behavior to recognize stress

Children are highly tuned into the responses of the significant adults in their lives; they notice and absorb what they observe as to how their parents and caregivers respond to news like the attacks in Paris. When they see or believe their parents or caregivers are experiencing high levels of fear, terror or powerlessness, children intuitively pick up on these feelings and then mirror them within their own bodies and minds.

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

It is important to recognize some of the symptoms that children may be experiencing with excessive levels of stress and to know that these symptoms can vary based on a child’s developmental age. The Nebraska Extension Service shares the following basic information about how children can respond to stress:

The two most frequent indicators that children are stressed are CHANGE in behaviors and REGRESSION of behaviors. Children can change their behavior and react by doing things that are not in keeping with their usual style. Behaviors seen in earlier phases of development such as thumb sucking and regression in toileting may reappear.

Age groups differ in reactions.

For example, loss of prized possessions, especially pets, hold greater meaning during middle childhood. Of concern to adolescents during/after a major disaster is the fear related to one’s own body (intactness), disruption of peer relationships and school life. Adolescents feel their growing independence from parents and family is threatened. At this time, it feels different, since the family needs to pull together during this time and less independence is allowed.” {}

The above chart, while produced in the late 1990’s, still resonates with information available today, such as from the American Psychological Association [ ] The chart form makes it easy to define symptoms of stress based on ages.

Children need adults to help them understand confusing emotions

I encourage all parents and caregivers to be alert for possible indications that children in your care might be experiencing excessive amounts of stress, and be prepared with responses that might provide comfort and support. Children often need the adults in their world to help them navigate through the feelings and sensations connected with high stress responses from what they see and hear going on around them.

Also be aware of your own stress responses which might indicate you are experiencing strong feelings and sensations around frightening and overwhelming situations. Apply strategies to yourself to help you better cope with and manage your stressful responses. By doing so, not only are you caring for your own needs, you are modeling for your children that they too deserve to have ways to return to a place of inner safety.

I will provide some suggestions and resources for these kinds of strategies in my next blog.

Invitation to reflect:

  1. How aware are you of increases in your own stress responses to the terror attacks that just occurred in Paris?
  2. To what extent do you have intentional strategies to help you manage your own elevated stress levels?
  3. As you review the chart indicating some of the possible stress behaviors of children at different developmental stages, what have you observed in your own children?
  4. To what extent do you feel prepared with strategies that can help decrease stress levels in your children?

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



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