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Stress & Your Child

Dear Debi,
Is there such a thing as “childhood” stress? My 3-year-old daughter seems to be very moody and stressed out lately. She can’t articulate what is really bothering her. How can I help her if I don’t know what’s wrong?
Christopher White
Debi's Tips
Debi Gutierrez
Debi Gutierrez
  • Sudden changes in behavior may be signs of stress
  • Don’t ignore or minimize child’s reaction to change or conflict
  • Prepare your child ahead of time
  • Provide ways to release tension & express feelings
  • Maintain predictable routines
Expert Advice
Ann Corwin, Ph.D.
Ann Corwin, Ph.D.
Parenting consultant, mother of two
What we know about stress is that when you feel either psychological or physical pain, your body automatically releases stress hormones to try and relieve you of your pain. Stress is a means for the body to tell itself to smooth itself out. Adrenaline and cortisone are the two hormones released when you go through pain. They soothe your brain and make it feel almost like it’s underwater. When kids are stressed out, it’s very hard for them to learn anything because they’re in a fog. A child’s emotional brain literally takes over their whole body. At young ages, children can’t talk about what they’re feeling very well, so they use their bodies and act out. It’s not a child choosing to be stressed out. It’s that their bodies are dictating how they should behave. We’re born with stress hormones that are designed to put your body into a state of alertness.

First and foremost, kids do feel stress at a very young age. Christopher is right. It’s very hard to understand how kids are feeling because often kids don’t even understand what they’re feeling. It’s hard for kids to articulate what’s causing them stress because they may not understand it and they don’t have the language to be able to describe what they’re feeling.

I would suggest that Christopher pays attention to when the stress happens and when it doesn’t happen. Observing your child will give you cues about how to help your child. Once you know what environments cause your child to stress out, you’ll be able to eliminate the stressors and duplicate the environments that don’t stress them out.

Warning signs of stress can include a change in the child’s routine behavior. Watch out for a loss of impulse control, such as throwing tantrums. Also, look for a change in affect – is the child talking less or talking more, or is the child withdrawn. Finally, if your child has had any signs of physical illness, observe them to see if their condition has developed into something more serious.

To get children to open up to you, you shouldn’t ask a three-year-old why they did something because they don’t know why. As adults we’re usually stressed out because we’re confused, which raises your anxiety levels, which puts your body into stress mode. Asking children why they’re acting the way they are only confuses them more, which then leads to more anxiety.

Through emotional education – no human being is born with impulse control – you learn it. You’re also not born with all your emotions; you accumulate them at different developmental stages. There are many books out there to help children learn to talk about their emotions. One in particular that I like is called, “The Way I Feel.” You have to teach your child how to label their emotions first and foremost. This can be done through modeling the behavior. You need to start identifying the feeling by name and then teach them how to deal with the emotion. We have a tendency to ask kids why they feel a certain way and they don’t know. Books are important to help them understand.
Child Care provider Comments
Theresa Quary
Theresa Quary
Mother of two kids, Daughter has Autism
If things aren’t structured or if they don’t know what to expect during the day, kids can get moody, cranky and can even throw tantrums. Sometimes they may be stressed out because they’re tired or because they have too much stimulation. Sometimes it’s hard for kids to even say that they’re sleepy. As parents, sometimes you have to go back and think through your day and try to identify what may be causing it. That way, you can make sure to change whatever it was that was stressing them out. Making new and different activities and making the day more creative in general can help to alleviate their stress with certain situations, especially if the stress is being caused from boredom or from needing a change in their routine.
Maria Velarde
Maria Velarde
Grandmother of one
Usually talking to a child in a low, soft tone can help ease their irritability and calm them down. You have to know a child and their normal behavior before you can start to identify when they get stressed out. When my grandson, Elijah, starts to feel stressed out, he’ll whine and cry and just isn’t himself. So, depending on why he’s feeling stressed, I’ll sometimes get a book and read. If that doesn’t help then I’ll take him outside and let him work it out. I notice that if he hasn’t had enough sleep or enough exercise he’ll get stressed out. Again, it just takes knowing a child and learning to identify the different causes of their stress.
Verdis Ferraro
Verdis Ferraro
Child care provider for 23 years
My advice for Christopher is to first help his daughter identify what she’s feeling. At 3, she should have some language skills so he can ask her what she’s feeling and give her some words to identify if she is feeling sad, angry, upset, tired, etc. Once I figure out something is wrong I can start to offer some suggestions on what to do. It’s also important to find a child’s comfort zone. Find out how they want to deal with their feelings. Some kids will reject everything and just need to be alone and that’s OK. Sometimes they want to be cuddled and hugged and other times they may want to work on an activity on their own. Children just need to be heard; once they feel like their feelings have been validated they can move on because their needs have been met.

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