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Stressed-Out Kids

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How sweet it would be to have the power to shape a world in which our kids played happily all day, free from anxiety. It might be sweet, but it wouldn’t be advisable. Childhood is a period of psychological growth, and that growth is spurred partly by mild to moderate stress.

While parents shouldn’t strive to eliminate all stress, they should try to understand what’s stressing their kids so they can support them through it. By teaching kids that life can be challenging and exciting, we give them the gift of accomplishment, of managing a new task, in the same way we let a baby feed himself when he grabs the spoon. The kitchen (and you) may be worse for the wear, but the baby is better for his achievement.

 Change and Excitement

 Judging Stress

 What Kids Consider Stressful

 Behavior Under Stress

 Helping With Stress

Change and Excitement

In the best situations, stress is an agent of change, helping children cope with more complicated situations. Take starting school, for example. Most kids like school, or at least some part of it, and they certainly need to be there to learn. Yet starting school always creates stress because:

  • School is change—from home, from the neighborhood, from summer activities.

  • School represents a whole new set of unfamiliar demands and unfamiliar people.

  • School has its own rules and ways to behave.

    Coping with school stress teaches a child adapting skills as he successfully finds his way through a new situation. This is one of the times in which stress spurs growth, which is something you want for your child. Remember your butterflies when you thought about taking that trip to Disney World? That’s stress too, the kind that comes from anticipating something desirable but unknown. And your child probably has just these same feelings as he looks forward to something he’s never experienced before that you’ve described as thrilling and fun.

    Judging Stress

    But how much stress is too much? And what are extraordinary stresses, from a child’s point of view? It’s the size of the bumps in life, positive and negative, that determine the level of stress. The more things that change in a child’s world, the more coping energy required.

    The following list, from a large study on childhood stress, ranks stresses, with No. 1 being the most difficult for a child.

    1. death of a parent

    2. death of a brother or sister

    3. divorce of parents

    4. marital separation of parents

    5. death of a grandparent

    6. hospitalization of a parent

    7. remarriage of a parent

    8. birth of a brother or sister

    9. hospitalization of a brother or sister

    10. loss of Mom’s or Dad’s job

    11. major increase in family income

    12. major decrease in family income

    13. start of a problem between parents

    14. end of a problem between parents

    15. change in Dad’s job so he’s home less often

    16. a new adult moving into the house

    17. Mom beginning to work outside the home

    18. being told someone likes you

    19. beginning first grade

    20. moving to a new school district

    Practically every item on this list would also increase a parent’s level of stress! So just at the time when your kids need help coping with a serious situation, you do too. Coping uses up lots of energy, and as parents try to get through rough times themselves, they often don’t have much left over to see the kids through as thoroughly as they would like. This is why it’s important to know your limits and be able to ask friends or professionals for help when you’d like to do more for your kids but circumstances don’t allow it.

    What Kids Consider Stressful

    It’s not only really serious situations that create stress. Take a look at what 5- and 6-year-olds identified as upsetting them the most:

  • fighting with a brother or sister

  • not knowing what to do

  • starting school

  • going to bed early

  • eating foods they didn’t like

    In other words, kids react the same way as their parents over sleep, eating, and discipline issues: with stress. Parents can help smooth these bumps by clearly expressing their expectations and then sticking to them.

    Behavior Under Stress

    Unlike adults, kids cope in spurts with major stresses, being sad or difficult for a short time and then “good” again, only to go back to being difficult. Some kids become withdrawn, “too good,” or tearful; others become active, difficult, or “naughty.” Signs of stress are individual, though patterns often run in families. Do you always come down with a cold when you’re stressed? Your child might too. More accidents, more thumb sucking, more sleep problems, more tantrums, and more aggression can all be signs of stress in kids. If you see a pattern, look around to see what the current stress is and what you can do to help your preschooler cope.

    As a child copes with stress, there’s usually a little backsliding in behavior for days or even weeks. During this time, your child is achieving mastery over something she’s never done before—riding the bus to school, for example. But in a situation that causes major stress, such as divorce, adjusting can take as long as two years; some issues can keep coming up again even as your child reaches adulthood. Keeping unchanged as many things as possible during difficult periods is one of the best things a parent can do for a stressed child.

    Helping With Stress

    A wise parent tries to figure out the sources of stress in her child’s life and then goes the extra mile during these periods. So be a detective—you might not be able to shelter her from life’s bumps, but you sure can support her emotionally when they occur.

    One of the important things to remember about periods of stress is not to relax your regular rules too much—you probably want to indulge your child for her effort to get on the bus by letting her stay up later or watch more TV. But in the long (and short) run, this won’t work because she’ll be concerned when you let your rules slide. It’s reassuring to children that some things just stay the same, so keep the course as steady as possible.


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