Watch for the signs and help children build resilience

Sometimes stress gets a bad rap. While too much stress is not good for anyone, learning to manage normal stress is an important life skill. Normal or typical stressors for a child may include separation, frustration with a new skill or conflict, problems with friends, losing a game or doing poorly at school.
Moderate stress, also called Tolerable stress, includes more difficult or lasting events such as loss of loved one, divorce, or moving and adjusting to a new home or school. These are tolerable when they are mediated by relationships and support.
Toxic stress can have permanent damaging effects and is the result of strong and frequent or prolonged stressors such as abuse, exposure to violence, or the effects of living with an addict.
While parents can help by mediating and preventing harmful stress whenever possible, we can also help children build resilience and coping skills by responding appropriately to challenging behaviors and signs of stress when times – and tempers – are tight. You already may know when your child or family has a lot going on. Be on the lookout for common signs of stress and remember these helpful responses:
Infants and Toddlers
Signs of stress: Your child may show irritability, anxiety, and regressive behaviors; have disrupted routines, as exhibited by changes in sleep patterns or eating habits; and, be extra clingy, crying easily and often.
Helpful responses: Provide consistency in environment and routines, extra physical attention such as cuddling or hugging, and assurance of your love. Name and normalize feelings and give strategies for dealing with them. Play together every day – connect.
3-to-6 year olds
Signs of stress: As with younger children, you may see regression or irritability, or changes in eating and sleeping habits. Also watch for aggression or withdrawal, fears, or using “lying” or pretend play as an escape.
Helpful response: Maintain consistency, routines and limits while offering explanations about what to expect, especially when there are changes. Give choices and ask for input from the child about how to reduce conflict or problems. Provide one-on-one attention, physical nurturing and reassurance.
7-to-10 year olds
Signs of stress: In addition to disrupted routines, you may notice less attention to school work, or problems with friends, teachers and parents. Your child may seem withdrawn or unhappy and lose interest in favorite activities.
Helpful response: Maintain consistency, routines and limits while listening to child’s concerns or requests – problem-solve together. Also give frequent physical and verbal reassurance. Talk to teachers and other adults in an effort to work together to watch for problems and work on solutions. Identify your child’s strengths. Look for opportunities to engage every day in enjoyable activity.
Signs of stress: Extra irritability, withdrawal from friends and activities, loss of interest and/or performance regarding academics. Watch for defiance, hostility, lying or stealing, taking on adult roles, and drug/alcohol use.
Helpful response: Establish communication – what is the best time, the best method – and schedule it if necessary, i.e. family meetings. Allow some independence and choices, and invite input and suggestions. Set clear rules and consequences, and maintain family routines. Empathize, discuss and model good coping skills. Create a safe environment at home. Encourage outside interests and activity.
The key at all ages is to watch for changes in behavior, especially eating, sleeping, relationships and mood. And think about how you can connect with your child every day to boost your relationship. While some unacceptable behavior may call for age-appropriate consequences, getting to the root of the problem will have a more lasting and positive effect. Trusting, consistent, nurturing relationships build resilience to help children up and over the bumps in life.
Jenni Watts Evans is a parent educator and assistant director at the Parenting Center at Children’s Hospital. For more information and to learn about the parenting groups and classes available, call 504.896.9591, visit or email [email protected].

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