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Small Child, Big Stress?

Do you sometimes experience stress? So does your child. Stress may be a part of life for everyone, but prolonged stress can be harmful. You can help your child learn to recognize and cope with the feelings of frustration, sadness, worry, and anger that can lead to stress or be signs of stress.

Notice behavior that seems unusual for your child.

Three-year-old Micah usually chatters and laughs with his parents and friends, but his mom notices he’s spending more time hugging and rocking his teddy bear. His classmate Maddie usually plays happily with her toys and books, but suddenly she is clinging to her teacher more often and is easily upset. Both may be showing signs of stress.

Help your children identify their feelings.

Tell children what you see and help them label their feelings. “Micah, your face looks sad.” “Maddie, you look worried. Can I help?” Try reading books together about feelings. Ask your children’s librarian for suggestions. Two to consider: Glad Monster, Sad Monster by Ed Emberley and Feelings by Aliki.

Adaptations for children with significant support needs

  • Provide pictures of children demonstrating various facial expressions and have them match “happy” to “happy” and “crying” to “crying.”
  • Use a feelings chart with pictures of children demonstrating various facial expressions to represent feelings to help children identify their feelings. Ask children to point to the picture that shows what they are feeling.

Teach ways to cope.

Model what to do with negative feelings. “I feel sad. Let’s hug and then go for a walk.” “I’m frustrated no one answers my call. Let’s have lunch and I’ll try later.” “Would you like to pack a bag with a few favorite things to carry with us when we move?” Encourage your child to share her feelings by listening and not dismissing them.

Adaptations for children with significant support needs

  • Teach breathing techniques to help children calm themselves when upset. Model how to breath in and “smell the flower” and breath out and “blow out the candle.” Help children practice this technique before becoming upset.
  • Teach children to request a break when they are in situations that may be overwhelming. Preverbal children can use pictures or icons to request a break, walk, or quiet time when they are in challenging situations.

Limit stress.

Try to anticipate events that might cause stress and prepare your child. Let her know Grandma is sick, so she will be in bed when you visit, or that she will have a new teacher at school. Reassure her she may find a change strange at first, but that will pass. Keep daily routines as normal as possible during stressful times. If possible, avoid making additional stressful changes when your child is already adjusting to a current change.

Adaptations for children with significant support needs

  • Use a “change” symbol on a child’s visual schedule to indicate something will be different that day. When reviewing the schedule at the beginning of the day, discuss how the day will be different.

Be there.

Make time to talk with your child every day. Spend time together even if he doesn’t seem to feel like talking. Reassure him often he is loved and will be cared for. Just having fun together can strengthen your child’s coping skills.

Adaptations for children with significant support needs

  • Join in the play of your child; show interest in their interests. Play alongside them if they tend to play in isolation. Comment on your play and/or their play.
  • Speak to your preverbal child as you would to a verbal child.

Talk to her child care or health care provider.

Share your concern if your child displays severe or prolonged signs of stress. A child who shows little interest in daily activities, doesn’t sleep or eat normally, or continues to seem withdrawn or easily upset may need additional help.

Adaptations for children with significant support needs

  • Share strategies that help your child at home with their childcare provider. Provide copies of any pictures or other tangible materials that are used at home to support your child.

About this resource

Setting(s) for which the article is intended:
  • Child Care Center
  • Family Child Care
  • Home

Intended audience(s):
  • Parents / Family
  • Teachers / Service providers

Age Levels (the age of the children to whom the article applies):
Related IEL Birth to Three Guidelines:
Related Illinois Early Learning and Development Standards:
Reviewed: 2014