“Use your words!” a mother says under her breath but firmly to her little boy melting down in the toy section at Target. It’s the perfect spot for a tantrum — the shiny, slippery floor allows the body to slide and glide with minimal effort.
Mommy’s face is mad, the little boy thinks. I can’t stay! I want to stay! Bad Mommy! I can’t deal! Whaaaaaat’s happening to me???? Oh my tummy, oh my tummy!!!
Now the little one’s pain threshold is at about a zero. The fear/worry/anger all wraps together into a big, uncomfortable ball inside. This is similar to what happens to an adult, only the child’s brain isn’t developed enough to know how to self-control. And so he falls apart.
Many parents have no idea how stress affects their children. But adults DO know how they may react to something new or difficult or unpleasant. Understanding your stress can be a major clue into understanding your young child’s stress. In fact, anything within a family structure that’s unpleasant can cause stress to a child age 0 – 3.
Major Study, Current Relevance
Sometimes a child’s stress exhibits as a tummy ache. In a decade-old study (with current relevance) examining children age 4 and older it was found that in 90 percent of the kids, there was no diagnosable issue tied to their stomach pain. The children were growing normally, had normal appetites, were able to sleep through the night and appeared to be healthy apart from their abdominal pain. Since tummy aches are a very common issue in childhood, they are thought to be related to stress. And stress brings regression.
Regressive behaviors among toddlers include thumb-sucking, clinginess or eating or sleep disturbances. When these types of behaviors are shown, it is better to provide extra comfort and reassurance to your child rather than to admonish in any way. Avoid piling on stress by not saying things like, “You’re such a baby.” Or allowing older children to say that, either.
Some little ones enduring stress may have potty regression.
“Our little girl was doing great with potty training until we moved into a new apartment,” says Keely Braff of Smyrna. “It was like she just forgot everything she had learned. She also got a lot more clingy and then it was like a lightbulb went off for me. Oh! She’s freaked out by the change! We had been so busy doing everything that we sort of lost track of her,” Braff admits.
The Stress List is Long for Toddlers
Many factors can cause stress in children, says Elizabeth Pantley, author of The No-Cry Sleep Solution (McGraw Hill; 2020). Some of the most common causes of stress in children, from 18 months to 18 years old include:
Separation can be a major cause of stress not only for babies but for toddlers and preschoolers, too.
“Though separation anxiety is often a healthy response to being separated, it can also be a reaction to an unrelated stressor, such as a new home or a new daycare,” Pantley explains. “When there’s a life stressor, kids’ tolerance for other frustrations tends to go down.” This can lead to increased clinginess, difficulties with goodbyes, or nervousness about being away from mom and dad.
Major family changes such as death, divorce, a parent’s job loss or just parents arguing in the home can cause stress to a young child.
“The combination of heightened emotions, disrupted schedules and unfamiliar routines can make even the most relaxed child feel some tension,” Pantley says. Even positive changes, like the birth of a sibling, can be stressful. Change can equal stress, so if there is a significant impact on the way life has normally been, know that stress will be the result.
Little stressors in life that don’t seem to be a big deal to older kids can add up and cause a young child to be stressed. In addition, some young children have daily stress in their lives, such as a parent who is absent or who frequently disappoints or family members engaged in drug or alcohol abuse, illegal activity and so on. Any of these factors can lead to stress and anxiety in kids of all ages.
Steady as You Go
”It’s important to stay calm and acknowledge your child’s feelings,” Pantley says. “But don’t go overboard.” Convey that you understand your child’s feelings, but that nothing bad is likely to happen when you are apart. Let your child know he can handle whatever comes up. Your child can learn that he doesn’t need to be immobilized by stress or fear. Engaging in a matter-of-fact empathy may be the most soothing way to approach your child’s stress.
For instance, for a child who doesn’t want to go to daycare. You can say, “I know, this is really hard. I know you really don’t want to go; you’re having fun at home.’ But then, continue your usual routine and then head out the door as planned. This way, “all of your language is basically saying ‘I completely understand, but we’re still going,’” Pantley says.
Stick to the Plan
Routines are very important for toddlers as schedules help them to feel in control. Consistent routines “go a long way in creating a sense of calm,” Pantley says. It’s also helpful to keep a consistent bedtime because little children become stressed when they are overtired.
“To help your child cope with the stressors of life, make certain that he is getting a good night’s sleep, adequate nap time, healthy meals and plenty of daily activity,” Pantley says.
Allow for Processing Time
In switching activities with young children, remember they need time to adjust. Young children “live according to a much slower clock than adults do,” Pantley explains. “They don’t give a thought to what they might be doing next. They pause as they watch the cat sleep, examine the color patterns in the carpet and stare out the window. So examine your schedule to make sure you’re focusing on priorities and taking time to enjoy your child’s company,” she adds. Avoid taking away any special moments by rushing to the next item on your schedule too quickly.
Your young child has a right to have fun in his childhood and you can work to decrease some of the stressors that may take away from that. No matter what, your awareness of your young child’s needs can help you to parent with kindness, compassion and understanding — even in the middle of Target.