Every child experiences stress in a variety of forms. As your child grows and develops, predictable types of stress might include being afraid of the dark, transitions inherent in going to school, peer pressure, and struggling with how to fit in.
When ordinary stress becomes too much, children feel distress. You can frequently tell that your child is feeling distress when you observe a change in behavior or regressive behavior. You might see your child react to someone or some experience in a way that is not typical of his or her usual style, or you might see behaviors that are in line with an earlier phase of development, such as thumb sucking or forgetting to go to the bathroom to use the toilet.
These reactions to distress are a child’s way of coping. The reactions will depend on the child’s age and stage of development, his or her ability to cope, how long the stress lingers, the intensity of the stressor, and the amount of support the child receives from family, friends, and others.
Parents and other caring adults can help children manage distress by being proactive. Suggestions for reducing stress and avoiding distress include planning plenty of playtime, informing children about changes that may take place, and creating activities for children to play out their feelings. Reading books, planning art activities, playing with puppets, and making up stories will help children learn how to think through and name their feelings. Allowing children to make some manageable day-to-day and playtime decisions—whether the decision is about which socks to wear or what a doll needs to do next—can also be helpful.
Every child feels stress. When stress becomes distress, the adults in a child’s life can help by making time for love-filled and encouraging connections.