Assoc. professor of early childhood
For many of us, it can be challenging to get our kids dressed, fed, and out the door on time -- especially if your preschooler has another agenda in mind. This can cause stress for you as the parent, and can trickle down to affect the whole family.
Situations That Parents Find Stressful
Any situation that requires children to move in an unnatural rhythm is stressful. Most often, these are times that the adult world creates constraints on how a child would do something, so the stress usually comes from the adult pushing, rushing or controlling a child’s focus or pace. Many parents find the following can become stressful experiences: mealtime, bedtime, getting dressed, waiting in a line, or shopping.
How Parents Can Ease Stress
A few important ways you can help ease the stress include: pre-planning to avoid rushing; providing age-appropriate choices; and including children in the routine (making the meal, setting the table, choosing clothes that are easy for the child to put on). Timing is important, too. For instance, it’s not the best idea to take the child grocery shopping at the end of a long day when the child is hungry and the parent is tired.
Situations That Kids Find Stressful
Any change that takes a child out of his or her routine is stressful. Predictability is very important to children under the age of five. Routines provide them with a great sense of security and control in a very large and changing world. When families go through changes such as divorce or separation, death, chronic or critical illness, moving, a new sibling, changing preschools or even teachers (depending on temperament) they can become very stressed. It is important to explain things to them in an age appropriate way so that they have some sense of understanding and control.
How Stress Affects Children
Regressive or aggressive behavior is often observed in children who are stressed. Children need support and need to have the burden of the adult situations removed from their lives or they need a way to explore and release their stress. Play and art are often ways that young children will naturally do this. If the family is in crisis or struggling, outside help may be needed to support the child and the family.
Emotional Health Reflected in Children’s Behavior
Any behavior of a child communicates what is going on in his or her life. The child’s behavior is the best indicator of how a child is doing in that moment or over a period of time. A child’s behavior will tell you something as simple as if they are hungry or something more complex and long-term such as depression. Knowing your child and being a good observer is a really important part of raising or working with a child. Young children are easier than most other stages of development as they most often exhibit their behavior in overt and physical ways. They may jump for joy when they are happy or they may hit or throw things when they are mad.
Help Kids Manage Change
Keep you kids’ lives as routine as possible. Explain situations in an age-appropriate way. Remember to choose your battles carefully. For instance, matching socks on a busy morning is probably not that big of a deal. Let your kids participate in the decision-making where appropriate – mashed or boiled potatoes, peas or green beans, red pants of blue skirt, what order the errands should be done. Make a list and have your child cross them off as you go. Ensure your kids have time for child-directed play to alleviate the stress and work through the emotions that are tied to the situation.
Understand Your Child’s Perspective
Children do not always understand and when they do, they understand as a preschool child would think, which is very different from adults. Even when children can repeat what we tell them, they do not always understand. For example, a young child may tell you all about the funeral of their grandmother, but two weeks later that child may ask you what Grandma is going to get them for their birthday. Give children space to express their feelings their way and give them as much support and control over their lives as possible. Keep things as simple as possible and do not lose sight of what is really important.
What Else Parents Can Do
It is up to you to recognize warning signs of stress and help your child through the difficulty. Help your child to understand the situation. Explain what is going on in simple, reassuring language. Encourage your child to talk about his or her fears. Your child should learn to speak up and say things like, "I don't like it when the dog barks," or "I'm afraid to go into that dark room." Don't tell your child that his fears are silly. They are very real to him. Ease his tension by offering understanding, support and plenty of affection. Holding and cuddling a young child will help to ease the stress. Finally, you can increase your child's sense of security by remaining calm during times of difficulty.