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Childhood Stress: How Adults Can Help
By Carolyn Ross Tomlin

A teacher of young children said, "Children share the same problems as adults. There are no small problems—only small people trying to solve the big things they can't understand. And problems produced stress." Childhood stress is common in all cultural and socio-economic groups. No one can escape it.

The following anecdotes illustrate stressful situations where adults either helped allay the child anxiety or exacerbated the problem.

Fear of animals, especially large, barking dogs is a common fear among small children. "Whenever Joshua, our four-year-old son, came in contact with a dog—any dog—he started screaming and would run to us," said his mother. "Trying to reassure him the dog was only being friendly was useless. We talked about adopting a small puppy that would be his very own and one he would have responsibility for feeding and general care. After we brought the puppy home, the one that Joshua chose, we allowed both our son and the puppy time to get acquainted. Soon, he felt comfortable holding and petting the animal. After a time, we noticed the fear of other dogs gradually decreasing. Of course, it didn't happen instantly, but today he is comfortable when other dogs come near. I believe having his own small pet made all the difference in conquering this stress."

Separation from parents is one of the greatest causes of anxiety and stress for young children. "When four-year-old Jessica was dropped off at the child care center, she screamed and clung to her father begging him not to leave," said her teacher. "This was a terrible way to start the day—both for the father and child. Of course, he felt guilty, leaving with her crying. A few times he even returned home with his daughter. The next day, she cried and screamed even harder." After talking with the director, the father came up with this plan. He explained to Jessica that his "work" required going to an office; the child's "work" required going to the center. After he picked her up each day, they would spend quality time together, perhaps stopping at the park for a few minutes on the swings; feeding the ducks at a nearby lake; or stopping for ice cream on the way home. Within a week, Jessica was a different child. Today, both the father and daughter realize that saying "good-bye" in the morning means fun-time in the afternoon.

Planning too many activities for young children is another cause of stress. "One five-year-old in our center is picked up early every afternoon as his parents have enrolled him in numerous extra curricular activities," reports a teacher of young children. "These are people who believe that success comes from being involved in as many pursuits as possible. One afternoon it's soccer, another music, another drama, Little League, or swimming. Regardless of the activity he is enjoying at the time, he must leave and go immediately to another program. It's no wonder he often appears tired and depressed."

Data on Childhood Stress as it Relates to Adult Problems

In order to gain insight into childhood stress, researchers examined the effects of social problems children faced in relation to the patterns of smoking that surfaced in adolescence and adulthood. Data were obtained from a retrospective cohort study of 9,200 adults enrolled in a large HMO in California. Findings appear in the November 3, 1999, JAMA. Eight adverse childhood experiences were considered:

1.       Being a victim of verbal abuse;

2.       Being a victim of physical abuse;

3.       Being a victim of sexual abuse;

4.       Having a battered mother.

5.       Living with substance abuse;

6.       Living with someone who's mentally ill;

7.       Having parents who are separated or divorced; and

8.       Having an incarcerated household member. (Source: JAMA 1999 Nov 3; 282: 1652-8)

Research by Reuters Health suggests that stress early in life may increase the risk of drug abuse later on, according to a study using rats. Young animals who experienced the stress of being isolated from their mothers and siblings showed an increased readiness to use cocaine, suggesting that humans who experience early childhood stress may be more vulnerable to drug addiction. (Source: Brain Research 2000; 875; 20-31.)

Psychologist David Elkind, author of The Hurried Child and one of the first writers to take a look at childhood stress believes, "Adults hurry children to grow up too fast. This, in turn, produces children who are overly stressed. Most of us think of stress as an adult phenomenon. But today's pressures to cope, to succeed, and to win are every bit as taxing—indeed, as dangerous— for children as they are for adults. Children of today are the hurried children; forced to achieve more, earlier, than any other generation; outfitted in designer jeans, and a whole array of adult costumes; faced with divorce and single-parent families. Their traditional rites of passage come too early; their fears of failure are constant."

Ann E. LaForge, author of Tantrums: Secrets to Calming the Storm answers questions about what causes stress for young children. Even children who attend kindergarten feel stress upon going to "real school." Parents should introduce their youngster to school orientation or ask permission to take a walking tour of the building prior to school opening. First-graders experience stress by feeling they don't fit in. They are concerned about who their friends are. Parents should encourage children to talk about their problems and work to find their own solutions. If problems continue, talk with the teacher. Second graders are concerned about change. Once a routine is established, they want it to remain the same. Switching a lesson from the morning to afternoon upsets a second grader. Anxiety symptoms might include fidgeting, chewing on clothing or pulling at the hair. Try to determine the problem if you observe these symptoms.

Judy W. Wood, Ph.D., author of The SAALE Model for Reaching the Hard to Teach and international conference leader believes that spending quality—as well as quantity—time with her three sons helped her youngsters deal with day-to-day stress. Regardless of how tired I might be after work, I always planned for at least 10 minutes of undivided attention with each child each afternoon. Of course, it was usually much, much more. Today they are adults, but she continues to share at least a ten-minute daily phone call with them even though they are hundreds of miles away.

Causes of Childhood Stress

As adults we tend to view the world of children as happy and carefree. After all, what could youngsters have to worry about? Here are just a few:


·        Terrorism. After the September 11, 2001 attack, our world changed. Even those not directly affected by the tragedy have watched replays and disturbing images on television. When children hear about terrorism they worry about their family, friends, and home which produces stress.


·        Illness or death of a family member or friend. Often a child may refuse to leave their parent for fear this person will go away.


·        Divorce or separation in a family. Even when a friend's parents divorce, the child may believe it will happen to them.


·        Fears and phobias concerning a situation or object.


·        Separation from a primary caregiver—whether a regular teacher who is absent or a parent who drops a child off at a child care center.


Symptoms of Stress in Children

Adults may not always be able to identify stress in children. Some are short-term—others last longer. These symptoms relate to stress:


·        Bedwetting

·        Problems sleeping, bad dreams, or nightmares

·        Hair pulling

·        Fidgeting, thumb sucking

·        Chewing on clothing, pencils, etc.

·        Stomachaches and headaches

·        Poor concentration

·        Withdrawn, wants to be alone


Approaches to Reducing Stress

How can parents and caregivers help children cope with stress? Just be there. Spend time talking with the child. Let the child know they are important in your life. Other ways include:


·        Developing your child's self-esteem. Children who feel good about themselves have an easier time handling anxiety and stress.


·        Providing proper nutrition and sufficient rest. A diet filled with a variety of lean meat, fruits, vegetables, milk, and grains builds a healthy body that works as a coat of armor against anxieties. Sufficient rest makes a difference in how children face the pressures of the day.


·        Cutting back or reducing after-school activities. Children are often enrolled in far too many extra activities. These functions take away time for "just being a kid!"


·        Discovering ways to calm children. Use a lower voice. Ask for help with a chore. Say, "Who can help me pick up these toys?" Use water and sand play. Invite children to gather in small groups for story time. Move children in small groups during transition between sensory areas. Pair an overactive child with a calmer child. Use activities that require a child time to perform a function, such as blowing bubbles, using modeling clay, or working a puzzle.


·        Anticipating when stress may occur. Prepare your child if a doctor or dentist's appointment is due. Talk about what may happen at the visit.


·        Using literature to reduce stress. Books are a natural way to see characters in stressful situations and learn how to cope (see below for book list). Realize some stress is normal. Let your child know it's OK to experience some anger, fear and loneliness. Most parents and teachers have the necessary skills to deal with childhood stress. However, if the behavior continues over a longer period of time or is causing serious problems, make an appointment with your child's doctor. He or she will recommend competent professional help.

Carolyn Ross Tomlin taught early childhood education at Union, Jackson TN. She is a frequent writer for issues that affect young children. University


Cullinan, B.E. (1993). Let's Read About: Finding Books They'll Love to Read. New York: Scholastic.

Elkind, D. (1982). The Hurried Child. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishers.

Knight, M.E. (1982). Teaching Children to Love Themselves. Englewood Cliffs: CA: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Osborn, D. Keith (1980). Early Childhood in Historical Perspective. Athens, GA: Education Associates.

Schaefer, C.E. (1984). How to Talk to Children About Really Important Things. New York: Harper & Row.

Wood, J.W. (2002). The SAALE Model: A Systematic Approach for Adapting the Learning Environment. Midlothian, VA: Judy Wood.

Books for Stress Reducers

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst

Dinosaurs Divorce by Marc Brown and Laurene Krasny Brown

Strega Nona by Tomie de Paola

Tear Soup by Pat Schweibert, ChuckDeKlyen, and Taylor Bills

Will They Fly a Plane Into Our House, Published by Childswork/Childsplay.