Family & relationships

March 22 2018

How to help kids cope with stress at home

Lyn O'Grady
By Community psychologist

Children can pay an emotional price when their family situation sours. How can carers help them when hard times arrive?

Family life can be complex and all families face stress at some point. But, given the important role families play in children’s mental health, development and wellbeing the effect of such stress should be taken seriously. While stress is difficult to avoid at times, carers can help to minimise the impact it has on kids.

Why does stress matter to children?

Children are highly sensitive to what is happening in their family. It may not always be apparent to adults, but they can become worried or stressed as they pick up on the concerns of family members, even when efforts are being made to shield them from the news. Times of change which require children to adapt and learn new things can also be a source of stress for them.

Is stress always bad?            

A certain amount of stress is normal and even necessary for survival for children and their families. Sometimes stress can be positive, as it can provide opportunities for a child to practise navigating new things. But this mild stress may place an extra burden on a child when it occurs alongside other stresses, exacerbating the effect. Situations that result in prolonged or intense exposure to stress can be a risk to the child’s mental health, and require careful intervention from carers.

What causes stress in children?

There are a range of things which may cause a child stress, and some of them are remarkably every-day. It is useful to consider whether your child is distressed by:

  • Time pressures within the family, such as rushing to make extracurricular activities
  • Competing priorities within the family, particularly at times of change such as the arrival of a new baby
  • News they may be exposed to through the media or overheard conversations
  • The loss of a pet or family member
  • Family breakdown, and the associated changes, loss and grief
  • Conflict in the family
  • The expectations of family members or carers
  • The expectations the child places on him or herself
  • Sibling rivalry or conflict
  • A change of school or childcare
  • A house move
  • The relocation of a friend
  • Exposure to bullying, violence or unkindness

What are the signs of stress in a child?

There are a number of physical and emotional signs of childhood stress which may not be immediately obvious to adult carers. Children cope in different ways to stress, depending on their age and stage of development, their temperament and previous experiences they’ve had. Some children might exhibit behavioural changes such as mood swings, acting out, changes in sleep patterns or bedwetting. Children might report headaches or stomach aches. Parents might notice trouble concentrating or lost motivation for school work or interests. Children may become withdrawn and want to spend more time alone.

How can adults help?

Children can learn how to develop resilience and respond better to stress that is occurring within their family. With the sensitive support of adults, they can learn to develop age-appropriate skills to cope during stressful times. Often parents will also be stressed. It can help parents to find ways to look after themselves and consider harnessing support from others, such as extended family members or friends, at these times.

What helps to reduce stress?

Finding ways to support children when the family is under more stress than usual is critical. It is helpful to:

  • See if stress can be reduced. This is not always possible, but thinking about the situation from the child’s perspective can help to locate the main source of stress for them. When moving house, for instance, it can help to:
    • keep the child updated with plans,
    • listen to how they are feeling about the move,
    • acknowledge that it can be hard when things change,
    • identify favourite toys or books with the child that they can keep with them rather than packing,
    • maintain routines as much as possible.
  • Maintain healthy sleeping and eating habits and maintain positive routines where possible.
  • Let children know that you are ready to listen whenever they want to talk. It is important not to put pressure on them if they do not feel ready, but parents can create opportunities that open the door for children to talk when ready.
  • Read books about stressful situations children and families go through, such as moving house, beginning school and family separation. Examples available online or through libraries include Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst and Dinosaurs Divorce by Marc Brown and Laurene Krasny.
  • Inform the child’s early childhood service or school about any family stress that is out of the ordinary. This will help educators be more aware of the child’s needs and check in from time to time.

How can I get professional help with stress?

When stress is hurting your family, seek professional help from a psychologist if necessary. Psychologists can help you to identify what is causing the stress as well as how to tailor responses to help your family manage its specific stressful situations. Seeking help before significant problems occur, rather than waiting and hoping for the best, can help resolve issues before they become too ingrained.