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Childhood Stress: How Parents Can Help
All kids and teens feel stressed at times. Stress is a normal response to changes and challenges. And life is full of those — even during childhood.
We tend to think of stress as a bad thing, caused by bad events. But upcoming good events (like graduations, holidays, or new activities) also can cause stress.
Kids and teens feel stress when there’s something they need to prepare for, adapt to, or guard against. They feel stress when something that matters to them is at stake. Change often prompts stress — even when it’s a change for the better.
Stress has a purpose. It’s a signal to get ready.
When Can Stress Be Helpful?
In small amounts, and when kids have the right support, stress can be a positive boost. It can help kids rise to a challenge. It can help them push toward goals, focus their effort, and meet deadlines. This kind of positive stress lets kids build the inner strengths and skills known as resilience.
When Can Stress Be Harmful?
Stress or adversity that is too intense, serious, long-lasting, or sudden can overwhelm a child’s ability to cope. Stress can be harmful when kids don’t have a break from stress, or when they lack the support or the coping skills they need. Over time, too much stress can affect kids’ mental and physical health.
As a parent you can’t prevent your children from feeling stress. But you can help kids and teens cope. You can:
- Help them use positive stress to go for goals, adapt to changes, face challenges, and gain confidence.
- Give extra support and stability when they go through stressful life events.
- Protect them from the harmful effects of too much stress, such as chronic stress and traumatic stress.
What Is Positive Stress?
Positive stress is the brief stress kids and teens feel when they face a challenge. It can prompt them to prepare and focus. It can motivate them to go for goals, get things done, or try new things. They might feel positive stress before a test, a big game, or a recital. When they face the challenge, the stress is over.
Positive stress gives kids the chance to grow and learn.
Here’s an example: The everyday pressure to get to school on time prompts kids to get their shoes on, gather their things, and head for the bus. But if kids don’t know how to use that positive stress, or don’t yet have the coping skills they need, it could mean a hectic race to the bus that leaves both parents and kids upset.
What parents can do: When it comes to handling that morning school prep (or any other moment of normal stress), it's tempting to step in and get everything ready for your child. But that won’t help kids learn how to use positive stress. Instead, teach kids how to prepare without doing it for them. This takes more time and patience, but it’s worth it.
This type of positive stress can prompt kids to adapt and gain coping skills they need. It can prepare them to handle life’s bigger challenges and opportunities.
What Is Life Event Stress?
Difficult Life Events
Many kids and teens face difficult life events or adversity. Some get sick or need a hospital stay. Some have parents who split up. Some face the death of a loved one, move to a new neighborhood, or start a new school. Any of these life events can cause stress.
When kids face difficult life events, they might feel stress on and off for a few days or weeks as they adjust.
What parents can do: Parents can provide extra support and stability. Listen and talk with your child. Help them feel safe and loved. If possible, let them know what to expect. Talk over what will happen, what they can do to cope, and how you’ll help. Give comfort and show caring. Set up simple routines to help them feel settled.
Good Life Events
Even life events that we think of as good can be stressful. A big birthday, the first day of a school year, graduation, holidays, or travel can prompt kids and teens to feel stress.
What parents can do: Parents can help kids and teens prepare for what’s ahead. Talk them through the situation, focusing on the positive parts. Give kids a say in the plans when possible. Listen to what they think and how they feel. If they feel stressed, let them know it’s OK and they can cope. You’ll be there for them as needed.
What Is Chronic Stress?
When difficult life events lead to stress that lasts for more than a few weeks, it’s called chronic stress. Chronic stress is hard on kids when they don’t have a break from it or when they don’t have the support they need or coping skills to offset the stress.
Having a serious health condition that lasts for a long time can lead to chronic stress. So can losing a parent or close family member or going through lasting adversity. And dealing with things like discrimination, racism, and gun violence can lead to chronic stress. Over time, stress like this can affect kids’ and teens’ mental and physical health. But there are things that can prevent the harmful effects of chronic stress.
What parents can do:
- Help kids feel safe, loved, and cared for. This is the best way to offset stress. Feeling close to you and knowing you love and accept them is more important than ever. Provide routines, like the same bedtime, eating a meal together, or being there after school. Routines provide a rhythm and let kids know there are things they can count on.
- Teach coping skills. Kids feel better when they know there are things they can do for themselves to offset their stress. Kids of all ages can learn and practice calm breathing and meditation. There are many other skills to learn too.
- Help them take a break from stress. Make time to play, draw or paint, spend time in nature, read a book, play an instrument, be with friends and family. These activities are more than just fun. They help kids and teens feel positive emotions that offset stress.
- Reach out to your child’s doctor or a therapist. Chronic stress sometimes requires more support than a parent can provide alone.
- Advocate for your child. Sometimes, chronic stressors are outside of your child's control. In these cases, it can be helpful for parents to engage with the stressor directly (for example, contacting school staff about bullying).
What Is Traumatic Stress?
This is the stress that comes with trauma events that are serious, intense, or sudden. Traumas such as serious accidents or injuries, threats, abuse, or violence can prompt this type of stress.
Parents can step in to protect kids when they know they are being mistreated or bullied. But it’s not always possible to protect kids from every type of trauma. If kids and teens go through traumatic stress, parents can help them get the care they need to recover.
What parents can do:
- Give kids and teens extra support and care. Be there to listen and talk. Let kids know that they are safe. Validate and accept their feelings. Let them know that, with time, they will feel better.
- Reach out to your child’s doctor or a therapist. Some need therapy to heal from traumatic stress. Parents can take part in the therapy and learn how to best help their child.
- Spend positive time together. Encourage kids and teens to do things they enjoy. These might be things you can do together or things your teen does on their own, like enjoying music, nature, or art. These things prompt positive emotions that can offset some of the stress left over from trauma.
- Give kids and teens a chance to use their strengths in everyday life. Trauma and stress can leave them feeling vulnerable, anxious, or unsure of themselves. Knowing what they can do and who they are as a person can help kids and teens feel strong and confident.
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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Images sourced by The Nemours Foundation and Getty Images.