How to Manage Stress in a Young Child

It is so easy for parents of little kids to run into a problem that they just don’t know what to do with.

They might try something, and when that doesn’t work, try something else.

They might talk to their friends or turn to Dr. Google to get more ideas and try those. The best-case scenario is one these new ideas will work, but if it doesn’t, some parents might begin to say:

“I’ve tried everything. Nothing works”.

A response to that could be, “Don’t be discouraged! You just haven’t yet found the thing that will work, and if you did, you might need to stick with it for a little bit longer.” (I believe that there is always something that will work, and it is my job to help parents find that something!)

But sometimes, when you are trying to figure out what to do or how to manage a difficult situation,

one of the biggest fears is that you will cause stress that will cause harm.

We worry that when we are trying to solve a problem, or need to teach our little kiddo something or when it is time for them to try something new, it will be too stressful for them.

Here is one way to untangle the fear of your child experiencing stress that causes harm.

I am Brain Story Certified through the Alberta Family Wellness Institute (AWFI) and one of the really great things that they talk about is how to recognize and understand stress in a child’s life. Stress is divided into 3 categories that help us to organize our thoughts and responses as parents.

  1. Positive Stress
  2. Tolerable Stress
  3. Toxic Stress

Let’s talk a little bit about each one.

Positive Stress

This represents the normal feelings that come with stepping into new experiences.

When your child faces these kinds of stresses, it is usually with your love and support. Often, these circumstances are predictable and they are things that you will have been able to talk to about in advance. (I recommend talking about things with any age child – even small babies!). Here are some examples.  

  1. New sleeping arrangements
  2. A new sibling
  3. First times away from parents
  4. First day of school
  5. Making new friends
  6. Moving

Working through these sort of life experiences as they arise, and as they are age-appropriate, actually helps your child to grow and become strong.

Tolerable Stress

This kind of stress is the result of painful things that happen in life: things we wish wouldn’t happen, and things that are often unpredictable and unavoidable.

  1. A serious illness
  2. Loss of work
  3. The death of someone close
  4. A natural disaster

These are awful things that happen and things that we might try to keep from our children.

While oversharing was definitely one of my parenting mistakes, there are things that we really can’t hide from a little one. They may not understand, but they can sense that something is wrong. Very small babies have been known to demonstrate a change in behaviour when there was a significant and negative event in their parent’s lives.

However, all of these examples – and any other than you can think of or have experienced, can have less of a negative impact when there is a loving parent involved. The security and safety of the love, support, and presence of Mom and /or Dad can buffer the child’s experience, and reduce the impact on their inner being.  

Even severities such as war and refugee experiences can be mitigated by the strong presence of an adult who loves the child.

The last one is the most serious kind of stress:

Toxic Stress

This kind of stress represents experiences in a child’s life that are traumatic and for which they have little or no protection, support, or predictable love from their adult.

  1. Violence
  2. Abuse
  3. Neglect

These experiences have the capacity to impact a little person for life. But, if you know of someone who has suffered toxic stress, remember that there is always hope! It is never too late to bring love and help, even if that person is now an adult.

Back to you and your child:

How to help your child with an experience that involves positive stress.

Having identified 3 levels of stress, how can this help you in your daily life as a parent?

When something comes up that is hard for your child to face, you can think to yourself,

“Will this course of action cause stress to my child?” If the answer is “yes”,

  • The next step is to ask yourself, “Is this a positive stress?”
  • Is this something that is appropriate for them to learn at this age or stage of growth and development?”

This is important! Even if the books, other parents and other people in your life say that it is appropriate, you can still take charge as a parent and decide if this course of action – whatever it is – is good for your child at this time. This honours the individual development of your special little person.

  • If it is clearly not a positive stress, meaning that maybe they are not ready for this new thing, whatever it might be, you can take a deep breath and tell yourself that they will grow into being able to do “this”, sometime.

And, PS. It doesn’t matter what others think.

Next, if you have determined that it is a good and age-appropriate stress that your child is ready for, then you can ask yourself:

  • How I can introduce this idea to help them to be ready? Some things don’t need much of an introduction, but some things might need a few hours or a few days. Some kiddos happily float from one thing to the next, facing new challenges as they pop up, but others need a heads-up just to comfortably transition to the thought of getting in the car!
  • Sometimes, there can even be a tolerable stress that you know about ahead of time and need to prepare for, things like surgery, and that definitely needs loving preparation!

Finally, ask yourself, how can I support my child so that they can experience both feeling brave and feeling safe?

Once again, each little individual is unique; what worked for a sibling or your friend’s child might not be what this particular little person needs. If they are a bit older and able to express an answer in some way, you can ask them, “how can I help you? Would you like me to_________?” and follow their lead.

And, of course, after the event, make sure to reinforce their courage with lots of hugs, cuddles, or affirming words – what ever recognition reaches your child’s heart the best!

Here is a short video that explains about the different kinds of stress in childhood. Don’t be put off by the title! It’s called Toxic Stress, but it talks about all three.

Was this helpful to you? Leave me a comment.

If this post speaks to you, let’s book a free 15 minute call. Let’s to find out how we can work together to make your parenting experience better.

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