Children show the signs of stress in a huge variety of ways. Sometimes, it can be easy for adults to mistake stress for another emotion or motivator. A few common behaviors that look like something else, might be stress related instead.
Here are a few examples:
- Fits of tears seemingly out of nowhere
- Snarky, sarcastic comments
- Withdrawn silence
- Non-stop talking
- Lack of eye contact
- Quick temper
- Giddy silliness
Recently, we spoke with Lucy about how she sometimes feels stressed. She mentioned that she was feeling a little bit of stress as Winter Break approaches. She is worried about the upcoming Winter Performance and all of the changes to her routine related to the break. A few of the children made a connection with Lucy’s feelings.
Identifying stress as an emotion is really not part of our current childhood culture. Adults usually relate stress to work, health, interpersonal relationships, time and money. We generally don’t pay attention to the other triggers for stress that frequently effect children (not to mention us.) Many small things can set our stress reactions off. A change in routine, an anticipated event, or even an unexpected reaction from others when we try, and fail, to communicate a need.
We helped Lucy identify some of the physical clues that indicate stress. A tightening of our muscles, a need to “get away” or disappear and a burst in energy can all be signs that we might want to assess our situation and response. The children helped Lucy find ways that she could alleviate some of her stress and begin to calm down.
The first thing we tried involved tightening and relaxing our muscles. We closed our eyes, balled our hands into fists and squeezed as hard as we could. We held this while we counted to ten, then slowly allowed our hands to open, releasing the tension and the built-up energy. Our second experiment dealt with breathing. Again we closed our eyes as we slowly inhaled deeply, held for one second and then slowly released our breath.
The children noticed that after both movement sets, their muscles felt more loose. Some suggested that they felt more tired. We don’t expect our children to leave Pre-kindergarten with the ability to manage their stress at will. Our hope is that they begin on a long path to recognizing their own feelings of stress. With at least a few strategies in their pocket to help them manage stress, the world can be a lot less frightening place.