It’s easy to forget that babies and children experience stress because we, A.) tend to think they have it easy and couldn’t possibly be stressed, and B.) notice their behavior instead of whatever emotional state (sadness, fear, STRESS, etc.) is driving their actions. There is also the common phenomenon where growing children—even (and perhaps especially) babies—are sensitive to the stress their adult caregivers are under. Which frankly, in a “post-pandemic” world, is quite a lot.
Not all stress has a negative effect (consider the positive stress of learning a new skill, like riding a bicycle, or adjusting to a new, wonderful school). Babies, toddlers, children, and tweens/teenagers all experience stress and it manifests in different ways. I’ve outlined three typical areas where kids tend to demonstrate they are stressed and shared some approaches for offering support when things get tense.
- Bodies: Dysregulated bodies are definitely a sign that a child may be stressed. Babies lose control and arch their backs. Toddlers might bolt away from you. Older children could show stress through repetitive motion, e.g., foot tapping or hair twirling. A response that is physical in nature could help. Bouncing and/or swinging can stimulate the vestibular and proprioceptive systems, both of which help the brain understand the body’s position in space and improve coordination, balance, and posture (hit up your local occupational therapist FMI!). Many children—from toddlers to teens—don’t get as much physical activity as they need. Experiment with extra opportunities for movement: trampoline (more bouncing!), hikes, bike rides, tumbling, and trips to the playground. For older kids, you can even find video games that promote movement (Just Dance anyone?) or encourage team sports and disorganized family games and obstacle courses.
- Emotions: We are all familiar with emotional dysregulation. Humans of every age are prone to big displays of it. The part of the brain that controls executive function—the CEO management department—is not fully developed until age 25 (I know, sorry). Frequent tantrums, inconsolable crying, and displays of rage can all be signs of stress. Or, for toddlers and preschoolers, just a Tuesday. I’m kidding, sort of. These are developmentally appropriate behaviors, so it’s important to look at the larger picture and assess the frequency, intensity, and duration in order to know if your child’s behavior is typical or a symptom of something else like too much stress. Additionally, it’s important for adults who want to guide their kids in learning self-regulation to be able to self-regulate themselves (again, sorry).
- Routines: When things go sideways, structure and routines often take a hit. Nap regression in babies. Toileting backsliding in toddlers. Children who have a hard time falling asleep or transitioning from one part of the day to another. Many children display what is known as post-restraint collapse. This form of dysregulation is when children have used up all their energy to “behave well” at child care or school only to come home, release this “holding,” and lose their ability to manage their emotions or body! Often stressed caregivers are tempted to loosen routines when tensions run high, but their structure can actually help youngsters feel safer and more secure which reduces stress. Try to stick to routines, especially when you feel overwhelmed.
One additional way to help young people of all ages manage stress of any kind is to practice mindfulness exercises, especially those that rely on breathing. There are several outlined in the “Mindfulness Practices for Families” link listed in the Resources section below.
A parting friendly reminder to keep tabs on your stress. As noted earlier, it does have an impact. All the usual self-love and self-nurturance practices are on the table here: time alone, time with friends/a partner, physical activity of any kind, meditation/spiritual practice, satisfying food choices, therapy/affirmations/positive self-talk, sleep hygiene, and time spent in nature. Do not hesitate to do the things you know will help you take good care of yourself.
This article was originally published in the September/October 2022 issue of Parent & Family.
Sarah MacLaughlin is author of the award-winning book, What Not to Say: Tools for Talking with Young Children and the 2021 release, Raising Humans With Heart. Her writing has also been featured in The Huffington Post. Sarah is a human development nerd who brings over 30 years of experience working with children and families to her coaching practice. Sarah is also mom to a teenager who gives her plenty of opportunities to take her own advice. Reach out for parenting support via her “Get In Touch” page.