Some children may well experience stress during turbulent times. Supporting children during times of stress begins with knowing the child. The best indicators of distress in children are changes in behavior not typical for the child. But remember, not all behaviors or behavior changes will stem from the crisis or revisiting of a crisis. All the other aspects of life and development are marching on: adjusting to a new class or school, friends moving away or changing allegiances, parents worried about layoffs, or a teen not having a date all create personal stress that may eclipse societal turmoil.

Common Children’s Reactions to Stress:

  • Bed-wetting
  • Fear of the dark, monsters, or animals
  • Clinging
  • Whining
  • Nightmares
  • Toileting accidents, constipation
  • Loss or increase of appetite
  • Fear of being left alone; fear of strangers
  • Confusion/indecision
  • Testing behavior or refusal to be cooperative
  • Nail biting or thumb sucking
  • Irritability
  • Loss of interest and poor concentration in school
  • Withdrawal from peers
  • Regressive behavior (reverting to past behaviors)
  • Headaches or other physical complaints
  • Increase or decrease in energy level
  • Indifference
  • Depression

Helping Children Cope with Stress: A Quick Summary

  1. Be available.
  2. Provide a peaceful household.
  3. Listen, listen, and listen some more.
  4. Be honest and answer their questions – at their level.
  5. Respect differences in children – individual and age based.
  6. Encourage consistency, everyday routines, and favorite rituals.
  7. Make the environment safe for talking about feelings and thoughts.
  8. Expect and allow for all kinds of emotion.
  9. Give choices and be flexible – avoid power struggles.
  10. Allow a lot of opportunities and different media for expression.
  11. Encourage activity and play.
  12. Support the child’s friendships and social network.
  13. Be a model as a human being.
  14. Hug with permission.
  15. Practice patience.
  16. Support children – at their worst.
  17. Expect behavior that is typical of a younger child.
  18. Expect behavior that is beyond the child’s years.
  19. Live right – eat, rest, sleep.
  20. Make bedtime special.
  21. Resist overprotection.
  22. Don’t force talk and interaction.
  23. Understand that playing is a way to grieve and sort through fears and confusion.
  24. Attend to the physical symptoms.
  25. Reassure the child that he or she is not alone.
  26. Set limits on acceptable behavior, and enforce them.
  27. Remember triggers that will cause distress.
  28. Plan family time together.
  29. Be available for help if needed.
  30. Take care of yourself.

(This list was adapted from 35 Ways to Help a Grieving Child, The Dougy Center) For a more comprehensive discussion of children and stress and supporting children, read What Happened to MY World: Helping Children Cope with Natural Disaster and Tragedy.