Stress and Young Children. ERIC Digest.
by Jewett, Jan - Peterson, Karen
Traditionally, stress has been defined in terms of its source (e.g.,
internal and external) (Marion, 2003). Internal sources of stress include
hunger; pain; sensitivity to noise, temperature change, and crowding (social
density); fatigue; and over- or under-stimulation from one's immediate
physical environment. External stressors include separation from family,
change in family composition, exposure to arguing and interpersonal conflict,
exposure to violence, experiencing the aggression of others (bullying),
loss of important personal property or a pet, exposure to excessive expectations
for accomplishment, "hurrying," and disorganization in one's daily life
events (Bullock, 2002). Although the research literature tends to focus
on the impact of single-variable stressors on children's development, in
real-life situations, children experience stress from multiple sources.
Researchers note that multiple stressors interact with one another and
can have cumulative effects (Stansbury & Harris, 2000). This Digest
discusses how children experience and adapt to stress, and offers suggestions
to teachers and parents on preventing and reducing children's stress.
HOW VULNERABLE ARE YOUNG CHILDREN TO STRESS?
Stress is experienced in many forms and varies by the individual, the
child's developmental level, and the child's previous life experience.
Adapting or managing stress appears to be highly dependent on a child's
developmental capabilities and coping-skill inventory. Researchers suggest
that children under the age of 6 are developmentally less capable of (1)
thinking about an event in its entirety; (2) selecting from a menu of possible
behaviors in response to any new, interesting, or anxiety-inducing event;
(3) comprehending an event separate from their own feelings; and (4) modifying
their physical reactions in response to change in stimuli (Allen &
Stress can have positive as well as negative influences. The younger
the child, the greater the impact of new events, and the more powerful
and potentially negative stress becomes. Some stress is a normal part of
a child's everyday life and can have positive influences. However, excessive
stress can have both immediate and far-reaching effects on children's adaptability
to new situations, even events that are seemingly unrelated to the specific
Research indicates that the negative impact of stress is more profound
on children who are younger than age 10, have a genetic temperament that
is "slow-to-warm-up" or "difficult," were born premature, are male, have
limited cognitive capacity, or have experienced prenatal stress (Monk et
al., 2000). Children who live in poverty, who live in violent communities,
or who are bullied in school settings are also subject to more external
stress (McLoyd, 1998) than other children. Children who have lower thresholds
for external and internal stimuli will find a wider variety of events and
conditions to be negatively stressful (Stansbury & Harris, 2000).
HOW DO CHILDREN EXPERIENCE STRESS?
Specialists have identified two categories of stressful experiences.
Acute stress is defined as a sudden, intense onset (e.g., short-term parental
illness) and then the subsidence of stressful stimuli. Chronic stress (e.g.,
loss through death or prolonged separation of a significant person in the
child's life--grandparent, caregiver, sibling) is, on the other hand, ongoing
and has the most significant and detrimental effects on children, including
changing brain chemistry and function, and lowering resistance to disease
(Gunnar & Barr, 1998; Lombroso & Sapolsky, 1998).
Zegans (1982) theorizes that stress is experienced in four somewhat
distinct stages: (1) alarm and physical reaction; (2) appraisal, as a child
attempts to make meaning from the event; (3) searching for adaptation and
coping strategies; and finally (4) implementation of a strategy or strategies.
This implementation stage may be a one-time action or may be extended over
hours or days. Children's appraisal of stressful events and their choices
of viable coping strategies are different from those used by adults (e.g.,
leaving a favorite toy at child care overnight may have a negative impact
on children who cannot "find" a way to "wait" until they are reunited;
this reaction and fear of its recurrence may last for several days). In
addition, experts have observed that children's physical responses to stress
are also different from adult responses in that they may be more intense
and involve the whole body (Zegans, 1982).
HOW DOES STRESS MANIFEST ITSELF IN CHILDREN?
Stress is most often seen as an overt physical reaction: crying, sweating
palms, running away, aggressive or defensive outbursts, rocking and self-comforting
behaviors, headaches and stomachaches, nervous fine motor behaviors (e.g.,
hair twirling or pulling, chewing and sucking, biting of skin and fingernails),
toileting accidents, and sleep disturbances (Stansbury & Harris, 2000;
Fallin, Wallinga, & Coleman, 2001; Marion, 2003). Experts suggest that
children may react globally through depression and avoidance; excessive
shyness; hyper-vigilance; excessive worrying; "freezing up" in social situations;
seemingly obsessive interest in objects, routines, food, and persistent
concern about "what comes next"; and excessive clinging (Dacey & Fiore,
HOW DO CHILDREN ADAPT TO STRESS?
Theorists believe that these behaviors represent children's struggles
to manage and react to stressful events. They believe that children generally
distance themselves emotionally from stressful situations by behaving in
ways to diminish the stress (e.g., crying and being upset in order to show
feelings of abandonment when parents go to work) or acting in ways to cover
or conceal feelings of vulnerability (e.g., acting out and being aggressive
or disruptive when it's time for toys to be put away or play to stop).
With age, children increasingly use cognitive problem-solving strategies
to cope with negative stress by asking questions about events, circumstances,
and expectations for what will happen and clarification of what has happened
(Kochenderfer-Ladd & Skinner, 2002).
Prolonged exposure to stress and a child's continued use of coping strategies
may result in behavior patterns that are difficult to change if the child
perceives the strategy as being effective (Kochenderfer-Ladd & Skinner,
2002; Stansbury & Harris, 2000).
HOW CAN ADULTS RESPOND TO CHILDREN'S STRESS?
Assisting children in understanding and using effective adaptation and
coping strategies must be based on the child's developmental level and
understanding of the nature of the stress-inducing event. Teachers and
parents can prevent and reduce stress for children in many ways:
* Help the child anticipate stressful events, such as a first
haircut or the birth of a sibling. Adults can prepare children by increasing
their understanding of the upcoming event and reducing its stressful impact
(Marion, 2003). Over-preparing children for upcoming stressful events,
however, can prove even more stressful than the event itself (Donate-Bartfield
& Passman, 2000). Adults can judge the optimal level of preparation
by encouraging the child to ask questions if he or she wants to know more.
* Provide supportive environments where children can play out
or use art materials to express their concerns (Gross & Clemens, 2002).
* Help children identify a variety of coping strategies (e.g.,
"ask for help if someone is teasing you"; "tell them you don't like it";
"walk away"). Coping strategies help children feel more effective in stressful
situations (Fallin, Wallinga, & Coleman, 2001).
* Help children recognize, name, accept, and express their feelings
* Teach children relaxation techniques. Consider suggesting to
a child such things as "take three deep breaths"; "count backwards"; "tense
and release your muscles"; "play with play dough"; "dance"; "imagine a
favorite place to be and visit that place in your mind" (use creative imagery)
* Practice positive self-talk skills (e.g., "I'll try. I think
I can do this.") to help in promoting stress management (O'Neill, 1993).
Other basic strategies include implementing sound positive discipline
strategies, following consistent routines, enhancing cooperation, and providing
time for children to safely disclose their concerns and stresses privately
and in groups.
Our increasing knowledge about the importance and impact of stress on
young children should be put to good use in reducing stress factors for
young children and in assisting children to increase coping strategies
and healthy responses to the unavoidable stresses in their lives.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
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J. S., & Fiore, L. B. (2000). YOUR ANXIOUS CHILD. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Donate-Bartfield, E., & Passman, R. H. (2000). Establishing rapport
with preschool-age children: Implications for practitioners. CHILDREN'S
HEALTH CARE, 29(3), 179-188.
Elkind, D. (1988). THE HURRIED CHILD (Rev. ed.). Menlo Park, CA: Addison-Wesley.
Fallin, K., Wallinga, C., & Coleman, M. (2001). Helping children
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Greenman, J. (2001). What happened to the world? St. Paul, MN: Redleaf
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In L. Goldberger & S. Breznitz (Eds.), HANDBOOK OF STRESS: THEORETICAL
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