Listen to an audio file of this tool.
Now Is the Right Time!
Young children and adults alike experience stress. Stress is typically caused by an external trigger like an angry sibling shouting, “You can’t play with my toys!” Feelings of stress are naturally built-in mechanisms for human survival and thriving. These feelings are the body’s way of warning you when there is danger and calling your attention to problems that need resolving. As a parent or someone in a parenting role, you can help your child learn to identify and manage their stress — an important skill they will use throughout their lives.
Children at ages three and four are learning about their strong feelings every day. When stress is present, they need a caregiver who will regularly soothe and help them understand their upset so that they learn how to identify their stress and self-soothe.
Symptoms of stress may look differently in children than they do in adults. Symptoms in three-to-four-year-olds could involve excessive crying, anger, fear of being left alone or other fears, food restrictions, and nightmares. Some young children may act out and create power struggles as they have not yet developed the skills to constructively manage their stress.
Symptoms of stress can look very similar to symptoms of anxiety and can be difficult for parents and those in a parenting role to tell the difference. Even though signs of stress and anxiety may look the same, they are different and require different approaches to handle each. Understanding the differences between stress and anxiety will help parents properly guide their children through their intense feelings.
- is a normal reaction to a situation or experience (an external trigger or stressor);
- generally goes away when the stressor goes away;
- doesn’t significantly interfere or alter daily functioning and activities; and
- responds well to coping strategies like exercise, deep breathing, etc.
- includes intense and persistent worry and fear that is difficult to control and out of proportion to the situation,1
- can be long lasting, and
- significantly interferes with everyday functioning and activities.
While mild anxiety may respond well to coping strategies used to manage stress, a child experiencing anxiety may require additional help from a mental health professional. There are resources listed at the end of this tool to help parents and those in a parenting role address complex issues like adverse childhood experiences and persistent and debilitating anxiety.
Every child needs to learn to manage stress. The following steps will prepare you to help your child through the kinds of stressors many commonly face. The steps include specific, practical strategies along with effective conversation starters to guide you in helping your child manage stress in ways that develop their resilience and skills for self-management.
Whether it’s your three-year-old crying, clinging, and not allowing you to leave the house when you need to or your four-year-old child showing fear of strangers or strange situations; stress and how to deal with it can become a daily challenge if you don’t create plans and strategies for dealing with it along with input from your child.
Today, in the short term, teaching skills to manage stress can create
- greater opportunities for connection, cooperation, and enjoyment;
- trust in each other that you have the competence to manage your big feelings; and
- added daily peace of mind.
Tomorrow, in the long term, your child
- builds skills in self-awareness,
- builds skills in self-control and managing feelings, and
- develops independence and self-sufficiency.
Five Steps for Managing Stress
This five-step process helps you and your child manage stress. It also builds important skills in your child. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).
These steps are done best when you and your child are not tired or in a rush.
Intentional communication and a healthy parenting relationship support these steps.
Step 1. Get Your Child Thinking by Getting Their Input
In order to ask helpful questions of your child and learn about their stress, parents can benefit from understanding how stress is processed in the body and brain. Understanding how the brain — for both adults and children — operates when feeling stressed is critical in shaping your responses and offering support for your child.
Anytime you are emotionally shaken from stress, fear, anxiety, anger, or hurt, you are functioning from the part of your brain that developed first — the primal brain — or amygdala. During these intense feelings, there are chemicals that wash over the rest of the brain cutting off access so that your only functioning abilities are in your survival center. This “hijacking” of your brain, as Daniel Goleman author of Emotional Intelligence refers to it, serves a critical role.2 In true survival circumstances, you are able to focus on fighting, fleeing, or freezing. Your body surges with adrenaline (a hormone) that gives you an extra boost of energy, but high stress can quite literally paralyze thinking. Effective problem solving requires logic, language, and creativity, though, none can be well utilized when greatly upset. In family life, fighting with words or actions or fleeing out the door is often not constructive, safe, or practical. Fundamental understanding about how stress occurs in the body and brain will assist you as you seek input, teach, practice, and offer support for your child.
Three-to-four-year-olds are experiencing many feelings and are just learning how to express them. Despite your child’s growing ability to use worlds, continue to pay close attention to their facial expressions, movements, and sounds in order to work on understanding what they are trying to communicate. Your effort to learn from your child will create empathetic interactions that let them know you are interested in what they are thinking. This will make a big difference as you work to manage intense feelings together.
In becoming sensitive to your child’s verbal and nonverbal expressions, you are
- responding to their needs;
- growing their trust in you, sense of safety, and sense of healthy relationships;
- growing motivation for you and your child to work together;
- deepening your ability to communicate with one another;
- growing their ability to advocate for themselves if they need to return to a routine or get more support to manage changes throughout the day; and
- modeling empathy and problem-solving skills.
Before you can get input from your child to understand (and help them understand) what they are feeling, you both need to be calm. Your child will not learn from the situation if you or they are upset.
- Ask yourself if your child is hungry or tired. You could offer a snack or transition to a nap.
- Check on how you are feeling. If you are angry, frustrated, or overwhelmed, take a “parenting time out” and take several deep breaths (it really does help) or sit quietly for a few minutes.
- If basic needs like hunger or tiredness are not issues for your child, then take additional steps to help them calm down. This might involve offering a hug, helping them take deep breaths, or holding a blanket or stuffed animal.
Three-to-four-year-olds are learning to understand their feelings. They are also just beginning to understand other people’s feelings and how their own actions affect others. They will need your support in figuring all this out. When both you and your child are calm, reflect on your child’s feelings so you can be prepared to help. Ask yourself:
- “Does my child have an unmet need?” They might need someone to listen or give them attention, some alone time, or some help so they can be successful at something they are trying to do.
- You can ask them about how they are feeling.
- “I noticed your eyes got wide and you came running over. Are you feeling stressed?”
- “I noticed that you stayed right beside me instead of going to play with your friends at the new park. I wonder if you are feeling overwhelmed by the new place to play?”
- You can also ask them about how they think others might be feeling.
- “Your sister cried when you took the toy. What do you think she is feeling?”
- “When your friend didn’t get to take their turn, how do you think they were feeling?”
- “When you said that to me, how do you think that made me feel?”
- If your child has recently experienced a stressor, use that example to reflect on their feelings at a time when you are both calm. You might ask, “How did you feel when we went to the new playground this morning?” Reflecting on recent experiences can help raise your child’s self-awareness.
- Use your best listening skills! Remember, what makes a parent stressed can differ greatly from what stresses or upsets a child. Listen closely to what is most concerning to your child without projecting your own thoughts, concerns, and feelings.
Be sure you talk about stress at a calm time when you are not stressed!
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
Because stress is such an integral experience in people’s daily lives, you may not realize how it can influence every aspect of your day. Learning about developmental milestones can help you better understand what your child is working hard to learn.
- Three-to-four-year-olds are aware of their separateness from others. This awareness can lead to testing boundaries as they attempt to assert themselves and exert control.
- Three-to-four-year-olds are interested in demonstrating their independence though they are still learning everyday skills like putting on shoes or fastening a coat. This can lead to frustrations as they are not fully capable of acting independently.
- Three-to-four-year-olds are growing in their sense of empathy for others and will attempt to comfort another crying child and will show affection for others without prompting.
- Three-to-four-year-olds are able to show a wider range of feelings.
- Three-to-four-year-olds can carry a conversation offering two to three sentences and are developing a feelings vocabulary. They are learning to describe their body sensations when they are upset or dealing with any big feeling. A feelings vocabulary takes time to develop.
- Three-to-four-year-olds may still struggle with asserting their needs or communicating when upset and may still throw a tantrum to express their anger or frustration.
Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem solving abilities, and sets your child up for success. Teaching also involves modeling and practicing the positive behaviors you want to see, promoting skills, and preventing problems.
- Model skills yourself, and your child will notice and learn.
- Get exercise and fresh air. Getting active in any way, whether it’s taking a walk or gardening, can help relieve stress.
- Remember to breathe. Try and make a daily routine of taking 5-10 deep breaths to help you begin the morning calm and focused. If you run into stressful situations during the day, remember to breathe deeply in the midst of the chaos to help yourself better cope with it.
- Create quiet time. Busy schedules with children are inevitable. However, everyone needs quiet, unscheduled time to refuel. Say “No” to social commitments when it’s too much. In addition to guarding your children’s quiet time, be certain to carve out your own.
- Set a goal for daily connection. Touch can deepen intimacy in any relationship creating safety, trust, and a sense of wellbeing. It offers health benefits as well. A study found that those who hugged more were more resistant to colds and other stress-induced illnesses.3
- Notice, name, and accept your feelings. Parents, as leaders of your household, can get in the habit of reassuring family members or friends, “I’m fine,” even when you are not. Yet, you need to be models of emotional intelligence if your children are to learn to manage their feelings. Notice what you are honestly feeling and name it. “I’m tired and cranky this afternoon.” Accepting those feelings instead of fighting them can be a relief and allow you to take action toward change.
- Ask, “What is my child developmentally ready to try?” Allow for healthy risks. Realize it will not always be done perfectly or in the ways you expect. Trust your child’s ability to solve their own problems with your loving support.
- Brainstorm coping strategies. There are numerous coping strategies you and your child can use depending on what feels right. But when you are feeling stress, it can be difficult to recall what will make you feel better. That’s why brainstorming a list, writing it down, and keeping it at the ready can come in handy when your child really needs it. Here are some ideas from Janine Halloran, the author of Coping Skills for Kids.5 Imagine your favorite place, take a walk, get a drink of water, take deep breaths, count to 50, draw, color, or build something.
- Work on your child’s feelings vocabulary. Yes, at times, parents and those in a parenting role have to become a feelings detective. If your child shuts down and refuses to tell you what’s going on, you have to dig for clues. Though your three-to-four-year-old may be speaking in full short sentences, they take longer to develop their feelings vocabulary. That’s because they hear feelings expressed in daily conversations much less frequently than thoughts or other expressions. Being able to identify emotions is the first step to being able to successfully manage emotions.
- Create a calm down space. During a playtime, design a “safe base” or place where your child decides they would like to go to when upset to feel better. Maybe their calm down space is a beanbag chair in their room, a blanket, or special carpet in the family room. Play act getting upset and going to your comfort spot. What items could be there to make your child feel better? A stuffed bunny, crayons, and a drawing pad? Try out those items and see if you both can feel better together.
- Teach your child how to stop rumination. If you catch your child uttering the same upsetting story more than once, then your child’s mind has hopped onto the hamster wheel of rumination. In these times, it can be difficult to let go.
- Talk to your child about the fact that reviewing the same concerns over and again will not help them resolve the issue. Talking about them might help, calming down might help, and learning more might help. Setting a positive goal for change will help. Practice what you can do when you feel you are thinking through the same upsetting thoughts.
- Create a family gratitude ritual. People get plenty of negative messages each day through the news, performance reviews at school or work, and through challenges with family and friends. It can seem easier to complain than to appreciate. Balance out your daily ratio of negative to positive messages by looking for the good in your life and articulating it. Model it and involve your children. This is the best antidote to a sense of entitlement or taking your good life for granted while wanting more and more stuff. Psychologists have done research on gratefulness and found that it increases people’s health, sense of wellbeing, and their ability to get more and better sleep at night.4
Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills, Confidence, and Develop Habits
Practice can take the form of pretend play, cooperatively completing the task together, or trying out a task with you as a coach and ready support. Practice is necessary for children to learn new skills. Practice makes vital new brain connections that strengthen each time your child performs the new action.
- Use “Show me…” When a child learns a new ability, they are eager to show it off! Give them that chance. Say, “Show me how you can take some deep breaths to calm down.” This can be used when you observe their stress mounting.
- Recognize effort by using “I notice…” statements like, “I notice how you took some deep breaths when you got frustrated. That’s excellent!”
- Accept feelings. If you are going to help your child manage their biggest feelings, it is important to acknowledge and accept their feelings — even ones you don’t like. When your child is stressed, consider your response. Instead of focusing on their actions or the problem, focus on their feelings FIRST. You could say, “Are you feeling stressed? Would your doll help you feel better?” Then, focus on teaching and practicing positive behavior.
- Practice deep breathing. Because deep breathing is such a simple way to assist your child anytime, anywhere, it’s important to get plenty of practice so that it becomes easy to use when needed. Here are some enjoyable ways to practice together!5
- Blowing Out Birthday Candles Breathing. You can pretend you are blowing out candles on a birthday cake. Just the image in your head of a birthday cake brings about happy thoughts. And in order to blow out a number of small flames, you have to take in deep breaths.
- Teddy Bear Belly Breathing. Balance a teddy bear on your child’s tummy and give it a ride with the rising and falling of their breath. This would be ideal to practice during your bedtime routine when you are lying down and wanting to calm down for the evening.
- Include reflections on the day in your bedtime routine. You might ask, “What did you like about today?” or “What were you most proud of?” or “What are you looking forward to tomorrow?” You should answer the questions as well. Children may not have the chance to reflect on what’s good and abundant in their lives throughout the day. Grateful thoughts are a central contributor to happiness and wellbeing.
Step 4. Support Your Child’s Development and Success
At this point, you’ve taught your child some new strategies for managing stress so that they understand how to take action. You’ve practiced together. Now, you can offer support when it’s needed by reteaching, monitoring, and coaching. Parents naturally offer support as they see their child fumble with a situation in which they need help. This is no different.
- Ask key questions to support their skills. For example, “You seem stressed. Are you feeling worried? What can you do to help yourself feel better?”
- Learn about development. Each new age will present differing challenges and along with them, stress. So becoming informed regularly about what developmental milestones your child is working toward will offer you empathy and patience.
- Reflect on outcomes. “That playdate with our friends was fun and not scary after all. What did you think?”
- Stay engaged. Working together on ideas for trying out new and different coping strategies can help offer additional support and motivation for your child when tough issues arise.
Step 5. Recognize Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation
No matter how old your child is, your praise and encouragement are their sweetest reward.
If your child is working to grow their skills — even in small ways — it will be worth your while to recognize it. Your recognition can go a long way in promoting positive behaviors and helping your child manage their feelings. Your recognition also promotes safe, secure, and nurturing relationships — a foundation for strong communication and a healthy relationship with you as they grow.
- Recognize and call out when it is going well. It may seem obvious, but it’s easy not to notice when all is moving along smoothly. When children are using the self-management tools you’ve taught them, a short, specific call out is all that’s needed. “I noticed when you got frustrated you took a break. That’s showing what a big kid you are, dealing with your big feelings.”
- Recognize small steps along the way. Remember that your recognition can work as a tool to promote more positive behaviors. Find small ways your child is making an effort and let them know you see them.
- Build celebrations into your routine. For example, after getting through your bedtime routine, snuggle together and read before bed. Promote joy and happiness by laughing, singing, dancing, hugging, and snuggling to appreciate one another.
Engaging in these five steps is an investment that builds your skills as an effective parent to use on many other issues and builds important skills that will last a lifetime for your child. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for children to become more self-aware, to deepen their social awareness, to exercise their self-management skills, to work on their relationship skills, and to demonstrate and practice responsible decision making.
Additional Resources for More Intense Forms of Stress — Adverse Child Experiences, Anxiety, and Depression
If there are high emotions in your household most days, most of the time, then it may be time to consider outside intervention. Physical patterns (like depression) can set in that require the help of a trained professional. Seeking psychological help is the same as going to your doctor for a physical ailment. It is very wise to seek outside help. The following are some U.S.-based resources to check out.
- American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP)
- Has definitions, answers to frequently asked questions, resources, expert videos, and an online search tool to find a local psychiatrist. http://www.aacap.org
- American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Healthy Children
- Provides information for parents about emotional wellness, including helping children handle stress, psychiatric medications, grief, and more. http://www.healthychildren.org
- American Psychological Association (APA)
- Offers information on managing stress, communicating with kids, making stepfamilies work, controlling anger, finding a psychologist, and more. http://www.apa.org
- Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies (ABCT)
- Provides free online information so that children and adolescents benefit from the most up-to-date information about mental health treatment and can learn about important differences in mental health supports. Parents can search online for local psychologists and psychiatrists for free. http://www.abct.org