Children Cope with Stress
Karen DeBord, Ph.D.
some stress is normal and even healthy, children today seem to encounter
many stressful life events at earlier ages. Stress shows itself
in children by complaints about stomachaches, being nervous, trouble
sleeping, anger flares, and infections.
is a life event or situation that causes imbalance in an individual's
life. An unhealthy response to stress occurs when the demands of
the stressor exceed an individual's coping ability. Often stress
results from something that is beyond our control. Control has a
great deal to do with levels of stress.
stress is normal. Daily and life challenges can be expected. For
example, most children will attend school and will have to go through
many transitions. Most adolescents will have to grapple with their
sense of identity to determine where they "fit." Being
afraid of the dark and feeling peer pressure are predictable stressors.
Other stressors are not as predictable. Disruptions to what is considered
normal for the child cause problems with stress. Small amounts of
stress, as experienced before a test or when meeting new people,
are necessary to present challenges for greater learning. Simple
stress experienced when learning a new skill or playing an exciting
game raise a person's level of excitement or pressure above the
WHEN IS STRESS DISTRESS?
Problems begin when ordinary stress becomes too much stress or distress.
There are a variety of reasons for children to feel stress. Death,
divorce, remarriage, moving, long illness, abuse, family or community
violence, natural disaster, fear of failure, and cultural conflict
may each heighten stress. Under stress, the heart rate and breathing
are at a higher speed and muscles are tense. Multiple stressors
worsen the stress level and the length of the stress. Our bodies
need relief from stress to reestablish balance.
Reactions to stress vary with the child's stage of development,
ability to cope, the length of time the stressor continues, intensity
of the stressor, and the degree of support from family, friends,
and community. The two most frequent indicators that children are
stressed are change in behaviors and regression of behaviors. Children
under stress 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,
OF THE TYPICAL SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS OF STRESS FOR CHILDREN
Typically, preschoolers lack self-control, have no sense of time,
act independently, are curious, may wet the bed, have changes in
eating habits, have difficulty with sleep or speech, and cannot
tell adults how they are feeling.
under stress each react differently. Some behaviors may include
irritability, anxiety, uncontrollable crying, trembling with fright,
eating or sleep problems. Toddlers may regress to infant behaviors,
feel angry and not understand their feelings, fear being alone or
without their parent, withdraw, bite, or be sensitive to sudden
or loud noises. Feelings of sadness or anger may build inside of
them. They may become angry or aggressive, have nightmares, or be
Typical elementary-age children can whine when things don't go their
way, be aggressive, question adults, try out new behaviors, complain
about school, have fears and nightmares, and lose concentration.
to stress may include withdrawal, feelings of being unloved, being
distrustful, not attending to school or friendships, and having
difficulty naming their feelings. Under stress, they may worry about
the future, complain of head or stomachaches, have trouble sleeping,
have a loss of appetite, or need to urinate frequently.
Adolescents typically are rebellious, have "growing" pains
and skin problems, may have sleep disturbances, may go off by themselves,
be agitated, and act irresponsibly.
and teens under stress may feel angry longer, feel disillusioned,
lack self-esteem, and have a general distrust of the world. Sometimes
adolescents will show extreme behaviors ranging from doing everything
they are asked, to rebelling and breaking all of the rules and taking
part in high-risk behaviors (drugs, shoplifting, skipping school).
Depression and suicidal tendencies are concerns.
BUILDING SAFETY NETS FOR STRESS
Just as children's reactions are each different, so are their coping
strategies. Children can cope through tears or tantrums or by retreating
from unpleasant situations. They could be masterful at considering
options, finding compromising solutions, or finding substitute comfort.
Usually a child's thinking is not developed fully enough to think
of options or think about the results of possible actions. Children
who live in supportive environments and develop a range of coping
strategies become more resilient. Resiliency is the ability to bounce
back from stress and crisis. For many children, a supportive environment
is not present and many children do not learn a set of positive
that support children and create a safety net for them during stressful
healthy relationship with at least one parent or close adult.
Well-developed social skills.
Well-developed problem-solving skills.
Ability to act independently.
A sense of purpose and future.
At least one coping strategy.
A sense of positive self-esteem and personal responsibility.
Ability to focus attention.
Special interests and hobbies.
Families can provide further protection by:
trust, particularly during the first year of life.
-being supportive family and friends.
-showing caring and warmth.
-having high, clear expectations without being overly rigid.
-providing ways for children to contribute to the family in meaningful
-being sensitive to family cultural belief systems.
-building on family strengths.
who live in supportive environments and develop a range of coping
strategies become more resilient.
It is not necessary to be a therapist to help children cope with
stress. One key element in reducing stress is a stress-free environment.
A stress-free environment is based on social support, having the
ability to find hope by thinking through solutions, and being able
to anticipate stress and learn ways to avoid it.
Social support means having people to lean on during difficult times.
Parents who listen, friends to talk to, hugs, and help in thinking
through solutions are ways children feel support.
them. Well-developed observation skills are essential. Observe for
more quarrels with playmates, poor concentration, or bed-wetting.
children. Encourage children and show you care. Be positive.
feelings. Let children know it is okay to feel angry, alone, scared,
or lonely. Give children the names for their feelings and words
to express how they are feeling.
children view the situation more positively. Some stressors make
the child feel ashamed. Shaming truly affects self-esteem.
activities for cooperation, not competition. This allows individuals
to go at their own pace and increases the learning of social skills.
parents, family members, and friends. They can read books together,
encouraging openness and listening. They also can ensure good nutrition
and proper rest.
regular, safe talks. Members of the family or classroom group who
feel comfortable can share experiences, fears, and feelings. Adults
can recognize the steps a child uses to cope and help others learn
from these experiences. Hold regular family conferences or classroom
meetings to plan activities or to suggest solutions.
THINKING IT THROUGH CLEARLY
Children must learn to think through a problem. Some specific strategies
include self-talk, writing about the problem, and making a plan.
Thinking positively and thinking up real solutions is important.
how they can cope in a healthy way. Keep calm, control anger, think
through a plan, and share the plan with the family.
proactive. Plan plenty of playtime, inform children about changes,
and plan activities where children can play out their feelings.
Books, art, puppetry, play, and writing help children think through
and name their feelings.
thinking skills. Help children think through the consequences of
actions. Pose situations (friendship, stealing, emergencies) and
think through actions. Ask open-ended questions about what the solutions
to problems could include, such as "What could we do about
children tell reality from fantasy. A child's behavior, for example,
did not cause his or her parents' separation.
an adult, focus on the stressor. Model how thinking through options
for dealing with difficult people, situations, or problems helps
you find solutions.
individual talk time. Talk about stressful events and everyday events.
stories and books. Stories can help the child identify with the
feelings of the character and tap their own feelings to ease them
out for discussion and to discuss coping strategies.
art for expressing feelings. Paint, clay, sand, and water all allow
for active expression.
children to act out coping skills. Playing with dolls, boxes, toy
telephones, puppets, blocks, cars, and similar items provides another
avenue to bring feelings out for discussion.
the child some degree of control. Children should be allowed to
choose within the framework of what is expected. Allow them to make
some manageable decisions, such as how to arrange their room, to
voice their opinion in some family decisions, which activity to
FORESEE STRESSFUL SITUATIONS AND AVOID THEM
If we can foresee an event, we can often block it as a stressor.
Ignoring problems, changing the subject, not worrying about it,
or changing an action can be coping strategies.
what could cause stress and plan ways to avoid it or how to deal
children to be proud of themselves in some way. Developing a special
interest or skill can serve as a source of pride and self-esteem.
Use gentle humor or read a silly book to create laughter and to
reframe negative thoughts into opportunities.
Offer personal space. Modify the environment. Quiet space and alone
time should be allowed. (Adjust noise levels and check the traffic
Teach relaxation and deep breathing techniques. Ask children to
close their eyes and imagine a quiet and or happy place (the beach
with waves, a birthday party, a warm cup of cocoa).
Teach conflict-resolution strategies. Teach children to think through
alternatives ways to solve problems. Who else can help solve given
problems? What additional information do they need?
As adults, we can make sure we don't add to children's stress by
expecting them to act in adult ways. We can praise, be positive,
seek positive solutions, help children name their feelings, teach
fairness, help children learn to like themselves, be patient, teach
honesty, and give lots of love and encouragement, particularly during
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Network for Family Resiliency (1995). Family Resiliency: Building
strengths to meet life's challenges. Ames: Iowa State University
DeBord, Ph.D. is a Child Development Specialist at the North Carolina
Cooperative Extension Service. Reprinted
with permission from the National Network for Child Care - NNCC.
DeBord, K. (1996). *Helping children cope with stress*. Raleigh,
NC: North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service.
information presented on this site is intended solely as a general
educational aid, and is neither medical nor healthcare advice for
any individual problem, nor a substitute for medical or other professional
advice and services from a qualified healthcare provider familiar
with your unique circumstances. Always seek the advice of your physician
or other qualified healthcare professional regarding any medical
condition and before starting any new treatment.