Five-year-old Kevin couldn't wait for his field trip to visit a kindergarten class with his preschool. For weeks, he strutted around the house bragging, and nearly every day he asked, "Mom, how many more days till we go to kind-ee-art?"
When the day finally came, however, the little boy did an abrupt about-face. "I don't want to go!" he shrieked. "You can't make me!" Startled and pressed for time, Kevin's mom put him in the van, where he cried uncontrollably. At the school, he refused to follow the other children on a tour.
"I couldn't believe it," says his mother, Donna Kochis of Storrs, Connecticut. "He thought this was going to be the most wonderful thing. Then he just snapped. He really fooled me."
Kevin is a classic example of a child overwhelmed by stress, and his mother's surprise is also typical. Most parents take great pains to ease their children through major traumas such as divorce or moving to a new neighborhood, but they often overlook the other things that kids usually find stressful.
According to experts, normal day-to-day situations trigger the most common stress for kids. Enjoyable events, such as a birthday party, family gatherings, or a field trip like Kevin's -- a new experience he felt uncertain about when confronted with it -- can quickly overload a child's circuits. Even seemingly minor concerns, such as fearing the dark or being teased by a bully, can snowball into serious anxiety for a child whose parents don't help put things in perspective.
A child's age seems to be the greatest predictor of what triggers problematic stress.
"It's not surprising when you realize that as kids grow, they face a lot of adjustments and new experiences," says Paul Jose, a Loyola University associate professor of psychology who has studied the roots of childhood stress. To be good troubleshooters, Jose says, parents need to be familiar with the developmental level of the child.
While adolescent angst about looks and popularity are well recognized, stressors for preschoolers are more subtle. Most involve changes in their routines or disharmony in their small corners of the world. Among children ages 3 to 5, common stressors include conflicts with siblings, parental arguments, family vacations away from home, and unfamiliar experiences, such as having a new baby-sitter or playing at a friend's house, where mom or dad is not close at hand. Exposing kids to new situations in small doses builds their stress tolerance.
What do children between 6 and 10 years old say is most stressful? Common answers include going to birthday parties, taking tests, being chosen last for teams, trying to please their teachers, making friends, and beginning a new school year.
Children can also be very sensitive to subtle social nuances. "A shove on the playground or a giggle on the bus can be serious stuff for kids," says Alan Hirsch, a psychologist and former director of the Capable Kids Counseling Centers of Linden Oaks Hospital near Chicago.
Not all stress is bad, of course. "The good kind motivates us to get things done and solve problems or take on challenges," says Harold Koplewicz, M.D., director of the Child Study Center at New York University Medical Center. When stress lingers, makes a child avoid things, or makes normal functioning difficult, then it's a problem.
Parents can do a lot to help their kids roll with life's punches. Communication is crucial. Try to spend a half hour each day chitchatting without distractions, suggests Michael Gaziano, a Rockford, Illinois, licensed clinical social worker specializing in children's issues. "And every so often, come right out and ask, 'Are you happy?' Just as sounding off about job pressure makes adults feel better, talking is also a great catharsis for kids." Here are some steps parents can take to help ease their children through stressful times.
Recognize warning signs. Children respond to overwhelming stress much like adults. Headaches and stomachaches, trouble concentrating, problems sleeping or eating, wanting to be alone, poor school performance, and irritability or aggressive outbursts are all signs of a lingering problem.
Don't overschedule. Parents may think an activity-packed schedule prepares kids for the real world, but development experts agree that valuable learning comes from unstructured playtime. Without rigid structure, kids are free to reflect, be creative, and experiment with deciding what to do and who to play with. And turn off the tube. The noise, commercial pressure, and sensationalism of TV can be anything but relaxing for kids.
Listen sympathetically. Making judgments or brushing off your children's concerns can make matters worse. When you don't take their little problems seriously, children will hesitate to confide in you when something deeply troubles them, says Gaziano.
"Empower kids, even if it means giving them a misting bottle turned 'monster repellent' to spray under their beds or teaching them to count to 10 when they get that 'uh oh' feeling in their stomach," suggests Ann Vernon, a children's therapist in Cedar Falls, Iowa. "Kids need to feel that they are able to do something to handle their stress."
Put things in perspective. Because children have not developed their reasoning skills, little things can easily get blown out of proportion. A first grader may not recognize other reasons for strange shadows besides a lurking monster. In the same way, it often doesn't occur to older children that a friend who doesn't return their phone call may just be busy or that a sibling who snaps at them may have had a bad day.
"Kids are often victims of themselves because they're apt to misinterpret," said Gaziano. "Very plainly, parents need to put things into perspective for them."