For a little kid, events like moving to a new house or starting preschool are big deals that can trigger big stress. Here’s how to recognize the signs that your child may be having a tough time — plus tactics to help him cope.
Compared with adulthood, childhood is carefree, right? Not exactly. Your little one might not be dealing with all you’ve got on your plate, but children can and do get stressed. Events such as moving, the arrival of a new sibling, the death of a grandparent or pet, or just getting used to being away from Mom are big adjustments that can leave your sweetie feeling frightened, tired, or even sick. What’s more, young children can’t always explain what’s bothering them, which only adds to their woes. That’s when parents need to become behavioral detectives, tuning into changes that are likely triggered by stress. So if you notice that your child is behaving oddly, consider if your family has experienced an unusual and potentially upsetting event recently. If not, gently ask about what’s going on — does he miss Dad, who’s away on a business trip? Did something scary happen at daycare? You may not be able to quell your child’s fears right away, but you can reassure him that Daddy will return soon (show him how many days on the calendar and cross them off together as they pass) or that it’s unlikely the school hamster will escape again from his cage.
The following are all signs of stress in kids. If you notice your child exhibiting any of these behaviors, try to get to the bottom of what’s upsetting her, then use these tips to help her cope.
SIGN OF STRESS: EXTREME CLINGINESS
If your toddler continues to scream and cry every time you leave — or if she was fine being away from you but suddenly starts begging you not to go — she may be having a hard time adapting to change. Try the following strategies to help her feel more confident:
Ease the transition by taking a few minutes to play with her and your sitter before you leave.
Get her used to the idea of your departure by reminding her several times that you’re heading out, starting an hour or so before you go.
Distract her with a job — give her a special toy or keepsake to take care of for you while you’re away.
Give her something to take to daycare that reminds her of you, such as a photo or a small handkerchief with your smell on it, that she can keep in her pocket.
SIGN OF STRESS: DISRUPTED SLEEP
Young kids have sleep problems for many reasons — some (teething pains, colds) come and go pretty quickly, while others (bed-wetting, sleep talking) take extra effort to resolve. But sudden changes in your child’s sleep pattern can be a red flag that he’s feeling stressed. Kids who are overly worried may be unable to fall asleep or have trouble staying asleep, leading to night terrors, sleepwalking, or a refusal to sleep alone.
If your child often seems overwrought at bedtime, he may need extra help winding down from the day’s activity. Following a regular nighttime routine, avoiding sugary snacks after dinner, and banning TV before bedtime (good advice for everyone) will go a long way toward ensuring a sensitive little one sleeps tight all night.
SIGN OF STRESS: REGRESSION
A major life event can trigger regression, which may lead your child to revert to behaviors she’s outgrown, like potty accidents and thumb-sucking. To help her adapt to the change, make sure she feels important and needed. A preschooler who’s less than thrilled about a new sibling, for instance, may adjust better if she’s given a big-sister job, like singing to her new brother at bedtime, organizing his changing-table supplies, or carrying his bottle.
SIGN OF STRESS: DEVELOPING (BAD) NEW HABITS
Children who feel stressed sometimes try to soothe themselves with repetitive behaviors like nail-biting, hair-twisting, or skin-scratching. If you notice your child engaging in these actions, don’t scold, shame, or insist he stop — little kids just don’t have that kind of self-control. Instead, try to get to the heart of what’s causing the anxiety by talking about what’s bothering her during “safe” times, like over ice cream or a walk around the block.
Of course, quelling a little one’s fears sometimes takes more than a hug or some extra attention from you. If your child doesn’t respond to repeated attempts to comfort her or if your family is dealing with real trauma or life changes such as the death of a family member, talk to your pediatrician about having your child see a child psychologist, who can help her better manage stress.
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