In an earlier post, we learned that young children are not immune from stress – they experience it in much the same way that we adults do. Even the youngest children in military families experience the stressfulness of major changes like the absence of a parent during deployment or moving to a new home. They are also very sensitive to the stress of the people they are around most often. When the homefront parent or caregiver is sadder or more anxious than usual or very preoccupied because of concern for the military parent, the child will notice the change and become anxious himself. Of course, major changes and stressors happen in many children’s lives, so learning how to help reduce the negative impact of stress during those times will be helpful as you care for all children.
Signs of Stress or Anxiety in Children
As a child care provider who regularly cares for children from military families, you are very likely to have times when you notice behavior clues that a child is feeling anxious or stressed. Those clues will look different depending on the child and the situation, but there are some common indications of stress in very young children:
- Changes in appetite or napping;
- Regressing to earlier behaviors like thumb-sucking or wetting her pants or bed;
- Changes in mood, having less fun than normal, being irritable, or being more withdrawn or aggressive than usual;
- Recurring troubling themes in artwork or pretend play (one sign that a child is especially stressed is when they keep replaying fear-themed scenarios without feeling any enjoyment or relief from the play).
Any or all of these clues might indicate anxiety or stress in a child. But they might also be the result of other things, such as illness. The important point is to notice changes, jot down your observations, and pay attention to how long they go on. Talk with the parent or caregiver about what you’ve noticed and how you are planning to help the child. But be sensitive to the fact that he or she is also under stress. Communicate calmly, positively and with confidence that together you will provide the support the child needs to cope well.
Stress Relievers for Children
Although it’s likely that you won’t be able to change the circumstance that is causing a child’s stress, there are some ways that you can help children calm themselves and reduce their body’s response to it. Besides doing your part to make sure they are well-fed and rested, there are also certain kinds of activities that have been found to reduce stress and anxiety.
Sensory experiences: It’s no surprise that a soft blanket or cuddle toy can calm a baby. Beside the fact that it’s a familiar object, it’s the soft feel of the object that somehow stimulates calming chemicals in the brain. In fact, you can probably think of things you still find soothing to touch as an adult! Sensory experiences that focus on touch can be very soothing to young children. Playing with water, sand, playdough, goop (cornstarch and water mixture), fingerpaints, or modeling clay can all provide sensations that help reduce stress. Repetitive movements like rocking in a rocking chair, swinging, or being patted on the back provide a different, but also calming, sensory experience.
Large physical movement: Any kind of physical activity that gets kids energetically moving their whole bodies for a good amount of time helps reduce stress. Increased breathing and blood flow, as well as the release of feel-good endorphins in the brain, combine to help children’s (and adults’!) feelings of well-being. Regular exercise has the added benefit of helping children sleep and eat better, too, which all works together to make them more resilient in the face of stress.
Music: Music can be used in a couple of key ways to reduce children’s stress. Slower, soothing music, especially instrumental music, has been shown to slow breathing, lower blood pressure, and reduce amounts of the stress hormone cortisol in the brain and body. Soothing music can be played softly in the background during quieter periods of the day. You can also use it in a more direct way by helping children breathe in time to the beat, close their eyes and imagine floating or flying, or slowly move their bodies to the music. More energetic, upbeat music can be used to get children moving, dancing, and laughing – all of which create “feel-good” chemicals in the brain that counteract the stress chemicals.
Humor: Humor is an anti-stress tool you may not have thought of before. Researchers are finding more and more evidence that laughing results in actual physical changes in our bodies – lower blood pressure and heart rate, better breathing and digestion, and the release of endorphins in the brain. Luckily, it’s pretty easy to get most young kids to laugh! Goofy silliness reigns supreme in the preschool world of humor. Find what tickles the funny bone of the child you are concerned about and be sure to provide regular opportunities for laughing. As it turns out, laughter really is good medicine!
Not every strategy will work equally well for every child, so apply what you and the parents know about a child’s personality and preferences as you put strategies in place to help reduce his feelings of stress and anxiety. The good news is that every one of the stress-reducers described above is also good for all kids, any time! Music, movement, laughter and sensory experiences should all be a regular part of an early childhood program. But for children who are in a particularly stressful situation such as the absence of a deployed parent, be especially sensitive to their need for these experiences and their response to them. And then be sure and share what works with the homefront parent or caregiver so they can try these strategies at home. By using them at home, too, the whole family can benefit from their stress-reducing effects!