Mental health & children: How you can help your child deal with stress Posted: September 26, 2016 Updated: September 26, 2016

OLHSA’s resident expert on children’s mental health, Stacy Green, LMSW, associate director for mental health and disabilities, shares tips about childhood trauma/Stress at multiple levels and how to support a child going through trauma or stress. 

First, it’s important to distinguish levels of stress. Daily life gives us stress, and children and adults both feel the effects.

Stress is a feeling that's created when we react to particular events. 

Positive stress produces an increase in heart rate and mild elevations of stress hormones.  Some examples are getting a puppy or being asked to do something out of one’s comfort zone.  

Tolerable stress is a more serious event that produces a temporary stress response but levels decrease due to supportive relationships.  Examples are going back to school after summer break or the death of a loved one.  

Toxic stress is a prolonged activation of the stress response systems in the absence of protective relationships.  Examples include family divorce or chaotic environments.  

Trauma is an intense event that threatens safety or security of the child such as a natural disaster or violent event.

Traumatic stress is re-occurring negative experiences that threaten one’s sense of safety or security, despite protective relationships, which may or may not be present.  Examples include witnessing ongoing domestic or community violence.

Young children experience stress differently than older children or adults. For them, stress is primarily a sensory experience. Without the life skills adults may have, children are not as capable of anticipating danger and protecting themselves, and they often possess a limited ability to express thoughts and feelings. 

Stress can manifest in children through the following behaviors:

  • Hurting self or others 
  • Excessive screaming
  • Destroying property
  • Difficulty calming self 
  • Difficulty sleeping 
  • Toileting issues
  • Silent and/or withdrawn
  • Running away
  • Difficulty participating in group experiences
  • Difficulty moving from one activity to another 

There are many effective ways you can help your child if you believe they are experiencing stress. The goal should be to help build resiliency in children and develop positive coping skills. 

To help a child feel physically safe and emotionally secure, adults can: 

  • Focus on nurturing relationships
  • Recognize impact of challenging experiences 
  • Consider child’s perspective
  • Develop predictable routines and expectations 
  • Enjoy positive moments with child
  • Participate in back-and-forth interactions
  • Teach problem-solving skills
  • Acknowledge feelings, efforts and progress
  • Avoid using shame or humiliation
  • Practice how to cope with strong feelings
  • Find ways to stay calm in times of stress
  • Reach out for help 

Our children deserve our love and respect 

Understanding that cognitively children are not developed as fully as an adult or older child can be a good starting point to give an adult the patience and empathy needed to show a child compassion. It is ultimately compassion that will de-escalate a stressful situation, and the tools in this article can provide you with what your child needs to cope. 

Why?

Studies have shown that the long-term consequences of trauma or toxic stress affect the health and wellness of the person as an adult. Many adults who experienced one or more traumatic events earlier in life have greater risk for high-risk behaviors, behavioral health issues or physical health problems such as heart disease, diabetes and liver disease. 

 

Our children are counting on us for everything; from food and shelter to the love and support they need to take on the world. Let’s give them what they need!