Some people are under the assumption that only adults, older children and teens feel stress. Young children feel stress too! From the time that babies are born they can feel anxiety, which can be caused by any number of factors, from toilet training to starting childcare for the first time, or switching to a different childcare situation. The good news is, parents can help ease kids’ stress and anxiety by being aware and using various tools and strategies, depending on what works best for your family.
How can you tell that your child is feeling stress?
Talk to your child, and, more importantly, listen.
Younger children who are not very verbal, will communicate in different ways. If your child is upset or crying when you leave them with a childcare provider (home/daycare/babysitter), make sure to find out how they were after you left (how long it took them to calm down/interact with others and play comfortably).
Of course it’s normal for your child to be upset when they are transitioning with a new care provider, but if they are still having separation anxiety after an appropriate amount of time (2-3 weeks of consistency), begin to look for other signs that your child may be stressed. Some behaviours are; being more clingy to you, always checking to see where you are even when you are not leaving them (at home, a friend’s house etc.); a change in sleeping patterns; irregular bowel movements; thumb sucking and hair twirling (if they have never done it before). Slightly older children may also resort to bed wetting, moodiness, lying, tantrums, defiant behaviour and/or secluding themselves.
Only you can ease your child’s stress.
Make the time to talk and listen, and spend “down time” with your child after picking them up from their care provider. When children are feeling stressed with too much stimulation during the day, it is very important for them to get rest and proper nutrition afterwards. As a parent it’s definitely hard to stop, get down on the floor and play/relax with your child (especially when your day was stressful too) but doing that says to your child that they are important to you. Also ensure you spend time on you! A stressed out parent begets a stressed out child. Go home after work – take a breath, de-stress, prepare dinner. Then pick up your child from daycare and have “down time” together.
Label feelings and emotions.
Comment on the emotion your child is expressing, and label your own emotions – children of all ages will be more expressive with how they feel if the most important person in the world to them, you, teaches them how. When your child is visibly upset, sad or angry, label that emotion for them, “I see that you are sad (angry) because…”. If you feel the stress is around separation anxiety, reassure them that you love them, and tell them when you are picking them up. Make it event based – since most kids don’t understand time tell them “after snack” or “after outside time.” Tell the truth. If you say you are going to do it – do it. They learn to trust and feel more secure over time when you do.
Establish a routine, structure and set limits for your child.
When your child knows what to expect and what is expected from them every day – it will give them a sense of control. Children do not cope well with disorganization and a spontaneous attitude.
Practising relaxation and breathing techniques will not only help you but your child as well. When you or your child are feeling stress (sometimes your child is the cause of that stress), take a minute, step back and breathe. 1…2…3…4…5. Taking a time out and breathing through the stress not only helps you calm down enough to respond to your “temper tantrum taking child” appropriately and calmly, it also teaches your child how to deal with stressful situations.
Although the situations I have mentioned here focus on childcare situations, consistency, labelling feelings and emotions and relaxation techniques can be used any time you or your child is feeling stressed or anxious.
There are certainly no “quick fixes” when dealing with children, but the most important thing to remember is to BE CONSISTENT. If you think your child is expressing behaviours related to feeling stress, you’ve now recognized it! Be consistent with your child’s routine, and try to provide a relaxing setting with having “down time” daily. You and your child will feel less stress on a daily basis.