Stress is ever-present in today’s society. Stay calm! Relax! Don’t stress! Are frequent messages we receive from the media as well as from our friends and family. Being told to calm down is not enough if we don’t have tools to help with that process.

We tend to reminisce about childhood being carefree years, but in fact, children often feel overwhelmed. For kids, what causes their stress? Kids’ stress can come from outside sources such as school, activities, peers and friends, and events going on at home. It can also come from the same sort of internal experiences that adults can feel – feeling a need to please, not wanting to get in trouble or make a mistake, and fears of failure. Like adults, not all stress starts off bad – there is a normal and motivating amount of stress that helps a child try something new for the first time, study for a test, or prepare for a sporting event. When it gets overwhelming, though, it can cause the same sorts of challenges that too much stress causes in adults.

What are the signs we need to be paying attention to? Many of these symptoms are similar to those in adults, but it can sometimes be hard to recognize them for what they are because children often are unequipped to put words to the feelings they’re having inside. In addition, as caregivers, we can sometimes complicate matters by getting annoyed or frustrated by these behaviors, which only compounds the child’s feelings of stress.

Any noticeable change in behavior from the usual pattern can be a sign of stress and these may include:

  1. Increased irritability or moodiness
  2. Complaints of headaches or stomach aches when otherwise healthy
  3. Asking a lot of new questions about upcoming events or things that are currently happening.
  4. Having increased trouble with separations or transitions and clinging to loved ones
  5. Refusing school or an activity

As a nanny or caregiver, you can do a lot to help kids manage their stress.

  1. Be calm. A trusting and warm connection with caregivers is a big help in reducing a child’s experience of stress.
  2. Be predictable. Keep a regular routine and schedule to help provide stability. Also, have clear expectations and rules and follow through on these consistently.
  3. Don’t overschedule. Be mindful of the importance of downtime. This is especially true for grade school-aged kids, who have a long day in school. Be careful to not fill all waking hours with structured activities.
  4. Basic needs. Make sure kids are getting the right amount of rest, good food, exercise and physical comfort. For younger kids, respect the need for naptimes and don’t frequently skip over them for an activity.
  5. Calming place or toy. Calming toys can be a lovey, favorite blanket or stuffed animal. Calming places and activities will vary depending on the preferences of each child. This may include yoga; older kids may start journaling while younger kids may draw or color. Water seems to have a calming effect for many, so taking a bath or being in the shower might help a child relax.

When managing stress, it’s important to take time to listen and hear what’s going on in the children’s lives. Take their feelings seriously and validate their experience. Even if you think it is a minor issue, it’s likely a big deal for the kid.

For more information, a Stress Management course is available in the Basic Childcare Certification from Amslee® Institute.

About the Author. Dr. Lauren Formy-Duval is a licensed psychologist practicing in Durham, North Carolina. Working with children and families for over 15 years in schools, hospitals, community agencies, Dr. Formy-Duval is currently in private practice and is also an adjunct faculty member of Amslee Institute.