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Even very young children can feel stressed

Dec. 11, 2012 @ 12:00 AM

Stress is a physical reaction to things that happen around us that make us feel threatened. The body responds with both a physical and emotional reaction that sends out an "alarm signal." Stress itself is neither good nor bad. Stress can affect anyone who feels overwhelmed -- even kids.

Learning to cope with stress is important in a child's development. As a parent, you can help with that process. Stress can be categorized in different levels, but some stress is normal, i.e. meeting new people or a trip to the dentist.

It's not always easy to recognize when kids are stressed out, but short-term behavioral changes -- such as mood swings, acting out, changes in sleep patterns, or bedwetting -- can be indications. Stomachaches and headaches can also be common. Younger children may pick up new habits like thumb sucking, hair twirling or pulling, chewing and biting. A child who is stressed may also have nightmares, difficulty leaving you, and overreact to minor problems, or have dramatic changes with school work. In preschoolers, separation from parents can cause anxiety.

A child's ability to adapt and cope with more severe stress is determined by: Development (brain development, self-regulation, psychosocial development, cognitive functioning and communication), attachment relationships (an attuned and responsive caregiver, social environment) and resilience (ability to bounce back from life's adversity based on protective factors such as good health, easy-going temperament, close relationships, consistent parenting, etc.).

So how can you help kids cope with stress? Proper rest and good nutrition can boost coping skills, as can good parenting. Helping the child anticipate a stressful event is wise. Other parenting techniques include role playing or the use of art materials to express themselves. Make time for your kids each day. Talk and listen to them.

Remember that some level of stress is normal; let your kids know that it's OK to feel angry, scared, lonely, or anxious and that other people share those feelings. Also, remember to set a good example when dealing with your own stressful situations.

For small infants, just being there and soothing them when they cry or act fussy or unusual is comforting. For toddlers and preschoolers, talk and recognize their emotions. It will help them to understand their feelings and learn how to cope in different situations. Books can help young kids identify with characters in stressful situations and learn how they cope. For example, "Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day," by Judith Viorst.

The time to seek professional attention is when any change in behavior persists, when stress is causing serious anxiety, or when the behavior is becoming a problem at school or at home.

Success By 6, United Way of the River Cities seeks to ensure that all children in the River Cities will be ready physically, mentally, developmentally, emotionally and socially to begin kindergarten. Lena Burdette is the community initiatives coordinator of Success By 6 for United Way of the River Cities. Contact her at 304-523-8929, extension 7.

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