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Helping Your Child Deal With Stress

By Cynthia E. Johnson (1991)

Stress is a normal, unavoidable part of life. It affects everyone, even
children. A preschooler is stressed when day-care arrangements are changed.
A school-age child is upset when he doesn't do well on an arithmetic test. A
pre-teen worries about her changing body. And a teenager feels stress as she
tries to figure out what she is going to do with her life.

Parents can ease the stress that children feel and teach them to cope with
stressful situations. It is important to remember that stress is a natural
part of your child's life. It only becomes harmful when the problems and
hassles of daily life overwhelm your child.

This publication is divided into sections that apply to preschool,
school-age and teenage children. Each section gives common causes of stress
and provides information that will help you with your child. Your help is
vital. Children who are emotionally isolated, who do not get the support of
adults, and who do not have confidence in themselves are the children who do
not handle stress well.

Children of all ages feel stressed when a new baby arrives, the family
moves, a divorce or remarriage occurs or when the family is under financial
pressures. When you are under stress yourself, be sure to take the time to
explain the situation to your children. A child who doesn't understand a
situation often imagines the worst.

Remember that your child is learning from you. Parents who are high-strung,
perfectionists, or poor problem solvers are apt to pass these traits on to
their children because kids copy their parents' behaviour.

Finally, too much stress can be harmful. You need to recognize the signs of
excessive stress so that you can get help for your child. Seeking help may
be as simple as talking the situation over with a friend, family member, or
minister. Someone who is familiar with your family's situation may be able
to give some objective, useful advice. If the situation is extreme, you may
need to talk with your family physician, a psychologist, school guidance
counsellor, or another professional.

Helping Your Preschooler
Preschoolers need loving reassurance and support. They have little control
over their own lives and are too young to use problem-solving skills to work
through situations.
Common stressful situations include: starting or changing day-care, starting
preschool, the arrival of a new baby or family member, being separated from
a parent, being disciplined, and toilet training. Preschoolers also worry
that they will be deserted or starve, and they may become fearful of
strangers. Scary things, sickness, and the unknown also are stressful.

You will know that your child is suffering from too much stress if he has
less energy than normal, is more irritable, has night terrors or nightmares,
more frequent temper tantrums, becomes more clinging or demanding, or is
crying more than usual.

What can you do? It is up to you to recognize warning signs of stress and
help your child through the difficulty. Help your child to understand the
situation. Explain what is going on in simple, reassuring language.
Encourage your child to talk about his fears. He needs to learn to say
things like, "I don't like it when your dog barks," or "I'm afraid to go
into that dark room."

Don't tell your child that his fears are silly; they are very real to him.
Ease his tension by offering understanding, support and plenty of affection.
Holding and cuddling a young child will help to ease the stress. Finally,
you can increase your child's sense of security by remaining calm during
times of difficulty.

When should you seek help? When you are unsuccessful in attempts to help
your child, or when the problem is too much for you to handle, get
professional help. Don't hesitate to ask for advice.

Helping Your School-Age Child ( 6 to 12)
Life can be hard for a child between the ages of 6 and 12. A child has to
deal with pressures at home and is learning to cope with a larger world that
involves school and friends.
Common stressful situations include: having an unusual name, taking a test
at school, feeling slow, ugly or smart, being pressured to make good grades,
making new friends, feeling jealous, competing in games or with a brother or
sister, arguments with parents or friends, not getting along with a teacher,
being criticized, worrying about a changing body, being embarrassed, taking
on more chores, and being excluded from activities and friends.

You can tell when stress is getting to your child. He may withdraw, regress,
and act like a younger child, wet his bed, develop sleep problems, grind his
teeth, or develop speech problems. Children under stress also may seem to
think and move slowly. Other signs include: difficulty at school, stealing,
lying, cheating, sadness, crying, fights, frequent falls, and accidents.

What can you do? The children who are best able to cope with stress are
those who have supportive and understanding parents. Be there for your
child. Try to understand what he is going through. Encourage him to talk
things over, and help him to think through problems. He is beginning to
develop some problem-solving skills, although he needs help in this area.

Parents often add pressure to their child's life by pushing too hard. If
problems seem to revolve around school, sit down with your child's teacher
and work together to set realistic goals and standards for achievement. The
problem may not be academic. Sometimes children are involved in too many
different activities or may have taken on too many chores at home. On the
other hand, an isolated child may benefit from being encouraged to
participate in a group activity, such as a 4-H Club.

Your child will benefit from your affection, approval and positive
reinforcement. Listen to him and help him to find solutions to his problem;
this will teach him to manage stress in his own life.

When should you seek help? When your child is in trouble at school or has
been reported for juvenile misbehaviour and the problem is beyond your
parenting skills, seek help. Or when your child is "too perfect," this is a
signal that the child is under stress and needs help. Teachers and
counsellors offer sound advice to help school-agers through not-so-good
times. This is a good time to introduce the family to the family council
concept. The family council allows the family to discuss issues. The
leadership is rotated and children have equal roles in the meetings.
Together, the family finds solutions to the problems.

Helping Your Teenager
Many of the stresses teens experience are related to growing up. They worry
about their changing body, struggle with sexuality and search for their
identity. Teenagers can talk about their problems and should have developed
problem-solving skills. However, because of the emotional upheaval and their
uncertainty about important decisions, they need special help and support
from adults.
During early adolescence, teens are very sensitive to criticism. Even
well-meant advice can seem like criticism and trigger an angry or defence
response. Self-esteem is generally low. Common stresses include: taking
tests, pressure to make good grades, pressure to experiment with sex and
drugs, problems in boy/girl relationships, concerns about fairness, right
and wrong, nervousness about speeches and competition, uncertainty about
personal appearance, pressure from too many activities, caring for younger
brothers and sisters, not enough time, and lack of self-confidence.

How can you tell if your teenager is under too much stress? Look for eating
or weight problems, excessive daydreaming, drug abuse or nervous tics like
unusual eye-blinking, nail biting, and muscle twitching. Emotional stresses
can lead to talk about suicide, delinquency, perfectionist behaviour,
isolation, and failure in school. Neglecting personal appearance, increased
irritability and exhaustion are other signs of stress. Often teens respond
to stress by withdrawing, not communicating, becoming rebellious, and
getting into trouble.

What can you do to help? Teenagers need to find constructive ways to deal
with stressful situations. As your teenager learns that he can deal with
problems, he gains a positive attitude about himself. Offer honest praise
when he does a good job on something. Remember to say thank you. Teenagers
often feel unappreciated.

Consider your child's schedule. Is he over-extending himself? Some teenagers
find themselves swamped when they add an after-school job to an already full
day. Is he expected to do too much at home? Although teenagers should be
doing regular chores, some do become overburdened with them. Teenagers are
still children, and they need time to relax and play.

Perhaps the most effective way to help your teenager manage his stress is to
keep the lines of communication open. He may not want or need your advice,
but he will appreciate your attention. Most teenagers like adults to just
listen to them. They want someone to hear what they have to say. This
doesn't mean that you shouldn't express your opinions, particularly on
important matters like values. But if every discussion turns into an
argument, you may need to spend more time listening, and to express your
opinions calmly and quietly.

Encourage your child to get physical. Teens can work off some of their
stresses in aerobics, cycling, skating, or jogging. This is a very
constructive way of dealing with stress. Other positive approaches include
learning to be assertive, to control anger, and to say "no."

When should you seek help? Adolescence is a difficult time for teens and
their families. When pressures become extreme and when solutions run out,
it's time to talk about getting help. When you see evidence that your child
is using drugs or when your teen talks about suicide or begins giving away
treasured items, get professional help immediately. Watch for warning signs
of depression, risky sexual practices, unusual antisocial behaviour, and
personality changes.

Children cannot escape the stress and the pressures that come with living in
today's society. But they can learn ways to cope. As a parent, you can help
your child in a number of ways:

Teach your child to solve problems. He needs to learn to identify the
problem, possible solutions, pros and cons of possible solutions, and then
to select the best choice.

Talk with your child. Set aside a special time to talk. Find out what's
happening in his life. Be honest and open with him. Tell children about the
family's goals and discuss difficulties, without burdening them with your
problems. Compliment children when they do well, and don't forget hugs and

Make sure your child has periods of quiet time so that he can relax. Teach
him that exercise--playing ball, skating, swimming, running, walking, riding
a bike--is also relaxing.

Be supportive. Mutual respect and shared values help during periods of
stress. Your child needs to let off steam. He will also benefit by seeing
how you cope successfully with stress.

Parenting Tips
Teach your child to identify stressful situations. He should talk about them
or write them down. Teach him to transfer coping strategies to other

Role play a stressful situation with your child. Help him to figure out a
constructive way to deal with stress.

Use humour to buffer bad feelings and situations. A child who learns to use
humour himself will be better able to keep things in perspective.

Don't overload your child with too many after-school activities and

Help children learn to pace themselves. Don't enrol them in every class
that comes along, and don't expect them to be first in everything.

When you are under extra stress, check to be sure that you are not passing
it along to your child.

Set a good example. Demonstrate self-control and coping skills. Encourage
cooperation rather than competition.

Get professional help when problems seem beyond your skills.

Berg, E. Teen Stress, Santa Cruz, Calif.: Network Publications, 1989.
Brenner, A. Helping Children Cope With Stress. Lexington, Mass.: D.C. Health
and Company, 1985.

Conrad, B.J. "Things Mother Never Told You: Children and Stress." Growing
Up, Spring 1987, pp. 45-48.

McCracken, J.B. Reducing Stress in Young Children's Lives. Washington, D.C.:
National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1986.

Saunders, A. and B. Remsberg. The Stress-Proof Child. New York: Holt,
Rinehart and Winston, 1984.

Prepared by
Cynthia E. Johnson, Extension Human Development Specialist, North Carolina
Cooperative Extension Service, North Carolina State University

This publication has been issued in print by the North Carolina Cooperative
Extension Service as publication number HE-371 (November 1991).

Tuesday, April 28, 2015


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Last modified: 04/29/12