Throughout life, it is hard to escape stress. Adults are all too familiar with it; we've had those feelings of a racing heart rate, tense muscles, or upset stomach that comes from dealing with stress. What we don’t always realize is that children experience the very same symptoms, although their stressors are often very different. Taking a test in school, getting in trouble for not following directions, or losing a favorite toy can lead children to battle with stress. Not all stress is bad, but if it becomes unmanageable for a child they will find ways to express it, sometimes negatively. It’s important to know the typical emotional maturity your child should be expressing and how to help them identify and manage their emotions.
Managing emotions is a learned behavior that children pick up early in their development. Babies learn to self-sooth when they are crying, toddlers learn to share, and emotional maturity continues to develop throughout life. Exposure to frequent stressful situations as a child can damage the formation and structure of the child's developing brain and cause physical and mental health problems in the long run. The importance of shielding and teaching children to manage their emotions is critical to a healthy childhood and future.
Children experience 3 developmental stages; each has a primary directive that can encourage strong social and emotional development. From zero to eight months babies are learning to trust, they will enjoy being held, enjoy watching their surroundings, and may begin to be fearful of strangers. From nine to eighteen months babies will cry from frustration, enjoy playing simple games, and will want to feed themselves. Beyond that, toddlers will seek to express identity and independence, they should desire to complete tasks themselves, and use their imagination. These are some examples of typical behaviors of children; however, stress can alter these behaviors.
Be aware of the signs that indicate the child in your life is feeling stressed. Some common physical and behavioral signs to look for include increased heart rate, changes in breathing, yelling, and fighting. When these are apparent, supporting the child through some "time-out" time could help them manage their feelings. Encourage your child to take 10 deep breaths with you. Reassure your child that they are safe and you will protect them. Remember that children emulate what they see, so when you model positive responses to stress you are teaching your children to do the same.
Even one positive and supportive relationship with a caregiver can combat the negative effects stress has on the body and mind and help children grow into strong, resilient adults. Demonstrating trust and respect for each other in the family, working together, and asking for support and guidance outside of the family are all skills strong families can embrace to create happy childhoods.
Children don’t come with instructions, and it is difficult as caregivers to know what to look for when it comes to social-emotional development. There are resources available that can support and guide you throughout your parenthood journey.
The Parent Helpline (1-800-CHILDREN) is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to provide resources and support during stressful moments.
Family support and coaching, through programs like Nurturing Parenting and Healthy Families Tennessee, are available to provide additional education and support to parents and caregivers. You can learn more about these programs by visiting our Support for Parents page.