Identifying stress in young children

Stress can be just as harmful for children as it is for adults. Since young children don’t articulate their emotions well, spotting anxiety in children and how stress appears is the first step to eliminating it.

Unusual conduct and changes in appetite or sleep can be signs of a stressed-out child. At this age, variations in behaviour and eating habits are fairly normal. However, in cases of extreme emotional outbursts or social withdrawal, the child may be experiencing effects of stress with no way to express it. Frequent or inconsolable crying is one of the signs of stress in babies and toddlers.

Separation anxiety is a common form of childhood stress. It can manifest as apprehension during Nursery/daycare drop-offs when mum and dad are gone for hours. At home, a child might avoid naps and bedtime out of a fear of being alone and alienated from their parents.

Habits like thumb sucking or hair twirling are normal for babies and toddlers. However, by the time they get to school, these activities are often coping techniques for nervousness and high-stress levels.

Several things can trigger this reaction to stress, including normal development. Potty training and moving to a ‘big bed’ are major life events that impact a child’s schedule and sense of independence. Other factors that can prompt anxious behaviours are busy or chaotic schedules, parental stress, and relationship trauma (changes in living situation or number of adults in the home).

Of course, we can’t predict every aspect of our schedule or what life has in store down the road. Still, there are a few things you can do to minimize factors that can cause stress for your child:

  • Maintain a predictable schedule with rest periods that they can rely on. Sleep and mental development are easier for children when the day’s expectations are met and they have time to wind down.
  • Talk about major changes like toilet training, or the first day of Nursery/School ahead of time so that they’re excited to try it when the big day arrives.
  • When possible, restrict exposure to conflict within the home. Parents and siblings inevitably have arguments and rough periods that toddlers don’t understand. Limiting what they see and hear avoids unnecessary anxiety.
  • Above all else, children thrive in structured, predictable environments where they feel secure and loved. The greatest thing you can do to reduce stress for your child is to watch their behaviour. Vigilant observation will give you the best chance of identifying the cause of their stress.

Helen Talyor
Principal
Ladybird Early Learning Centre