Helping young children deal with stress and anxiety
By ParentTV on 17 Apr 2019
Categories: Mental Health
Stress is a term that isn’t regularly associated with children. It is thought of predominantly as an adult burden – arising from the pressures and worries of grown up responsibilities.
However, even young children have worries and fears which can lead to stress and, in some cases, more serious mental health issues. In fact, it is estimated that 1 in 5 Australian children will experience a mental health condition during childhood, with half of all adult mental health issues beginning before the 14 years of age.
These concerning statistics highlight how imperative it is for parents and carers to teach children how to identify and manage stress from an early age. There are many warning signs that can indicate a child is experiencing stress. These can include:
- Behavioural issues (acting out)
- Changes in sleeping patterns
- Unexplained stomach aches or headaches
- Separation anxiety
- Adoption of self-soothing strategies such as thumbsucking, biting fingernails, hair twirling
However, sometimes it can be hard to tell if your child is feeling anxious or stressed. While some causes of stress in children may be obvious, others may not. Some common causes of stress in young children include:
- Change in routine
- Environmental factors – eg. noise or visual overstimulation
- Upcoming events – eg. doctor appointment, holiday, moving house, new baby, starting school
- Parent conflict/divorce
- Family illness or death
- Loss of a pet
- Loss of a treasured item
- Bullying or friendship issues
Fortunately, even preschoolers can be taught how to recognise the signs of stress and use strategies to regulate their emotions.
Here are some ways parents and carers can help:
1. Identify emotions – use age-appropriate language to name emotions and help the child associate the physical sensations that can occur in different emotional states. For example, sweaty palms, fast breathing, racing heart when afraid or worried vs how it feels to be relaxed, calm and safe. ParentTV expert Allison Davies gives a really good explanation of the physiological effects of anxiety on children here. There are also lots of great books aimed at young children about feelings.
2. Identify stressors/triggers – talking with your child about what makes them feel calm and happy as opposed to what makes them feel scared or worried can help you identify causes of stress and take steps to minimise them.
3. Identify what helps – finding what works to calm your child is a key element in helping them develop self-regulation skills. This could be things such as music, movement or cuddling a comfort item such as a blanket or toy. Enabling your child to implement these strategies when emotions are heightened is an important part of developing self-regulation. (Maggie Dent gives some great tips on helping kids regulate their emotions in this video)
Helping young children identify and manage stress can have a lasting positive impact. In fact, research shows children who are able to regulate emotions effectively are more likely to go on to be successful academically and socially as they mature.