Toddler behaviour

Stressed toddlers

How to help your little one through life's inevitable ups and downs

By Cathie Kryczka
Stressed toddlers

We want our babies to have blissful days, free of the worries that may cause a wrinkle or a frown on a little forehead. Still, there are stresses in little lives. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — if we see them as opportunities to help children learn that they can manage the inevitable bumps of life.

Gabrielle (now 26 months) has seen some stress: Last summer she moved into a big bed, learned to use the potty, stopped drinking from a bottle — and welcomed home baby brother, Sébastien. Her mom, Jessie Gaudreau from Brooklin, Ont., says, “I’m sure in her eyes it was a very stressful summer!”

The Sources: What stresses the very young?

In the big picture, learning to use the potty and gaining a sibling are wonderful milestones — big steps forward for a little child. In your own life, events like beginning a new job or getting married have induced some stress. Toronto psychologist Jane Margles says, “Just as it is for the rest of us, change is stressful for babies and toddlers, but unlike us they don’t always have the language to understand what’s happening.”

A young child’s life is full of changes — big ones like the arrival of a tiny, noisy brother, smaller ones like scalloped potatoes. Every day is full of surprises. New schedules, separation from parents, doctors’ appointments, switching caregivers, trips to Grandma’s can all create some stress.

Although we want our babies’ lives to be interesting and fun, too much excitement can also be stressful. Laurie McNelles, director of the Mothercraft Institute for Early Development in Toronto, explains: “With infants and some toddlers there’s a very fine balance between a stimulating environment that encourages early learning and an over-stimulating environment.” Because young children learn about the world through their senses, they can experience sensory overload when there’s too much information to process. Some babies cope by falling asleep — others may melt down, says McNelles.

The signs: What stress looks like

It’s often clear that a young child is stressed — the baby whose face crumbles when she realizes Mom has left the room; the toddler who is sombre and cautious in a new care setting. Gaudreau has seen Gabrielle become a little more clingy. “Recently she has decided she won’t leave my side and she wants me not to carry Sébastien — just her. But each day is getting a little better as she realizes that the baby’s here to stay.”

A stressed child might cling or whine more than usual. He might have a harder time settling at bed or nap time or suck his thumb more often. “Look for a change in behaviour; you might notice more irritability or more crying,” says Margles. “Some children might be much quieter, others more disruptive or aggressive.”

Our responses to stress go way back to our early human origins. Anne Murray, a trainer with Kids Have Stress Too (a program developed by the Psychology Foundation of Canada), explains: “Thousands of years ago, when faced with a threat, the reaction was, Do I fight in this situation or do I run from it? — and that’s still part of our physiology.” In both adults and children, stress floods the body with the hormones adrenalin and cortisol, and those have physical effects. Muscles tense, the eyes dart, the jaw clenches. Your child might have nausea, headache, fidgetiness, a rapid heart rate — even a rash. (Because your child can’t tell you whether she’s stressed or her ear hurts, you’ll want to be sure that there’s no medical condition causing these symptoms.)

The Soothers: What helps

We can’t eliminate all stress from our children’s lives. And we wouldn’t want to, really. We want our kids to know that they’ll be just fine when things aren’t comfortable. “The first step is to be aware that the child is stressed,” suggests Murray. “You might ask yourself what’s been going on: ‘Oh, yes! We’ve changed the day care arrangement and we’re picking him up later,’ or ‘Dad’s away this week.’”

The next step is to help your child through it — she doesn’t know how to cope with stress on her own. Our experts offer some suggestions.

Relief for babies:
• Aim for a peaceful environment. Try to maintain your child’s daily routine. “Babies and toddlers do best when they have a predictable environment,” says McNelles. “Anything that interferes with that will cause a certain amount of stress. The world you provide for your child should be comforting and predictable.”

• Learn what helps your baby. Not every baby wants to be held when she’s stressed. Murray says, “We need to sit down and cuddle some children. Others don’t want to be touched; they want to be left alone. We have to be sensitive — if you pick your baby up and he screams more, he might do better in an infant seat with a toy to look at.”

• Redirect her attention. McNelles suggests, “Take your baby to the window or to look in a mirror. Talk to her to take her mind off her discomfort. Or bathe your baby, which gives her a change of scenery — and low-key water play is calming.”

Relief for toddlers:
• Provide information (just a little). Preparing young kids for new experiences will help the unfamiliar become familiar. For example, Gaudreau recalls, “As the birth got closer we took Gabrielle on a little tour of the hospital. She saw where Mommy would be staying while she went to her grandparent’s house.” Having her own “baby” helped too: “We got baby accessories for her doll — a stroller, a bottle, diapers — and we felt that helped her learn what to do with a baby.”

• Read about it. Laura Storrie of Ottawa made a very personal story for her son DJ. He had just turned three when she had her third baby. “I made a little photo book meant to teach him what to expect when the baby came and help him adjust.” DJ’s book has photos of a baby (DJ!) sleeping, playing and crying. “He loved it!” says Storrie.

• Cuddle up. Touch is very soothing for many kids. Sit in a comfy chair and look at a book together or listen to music.

• Run! “Physical activity helps the body burn off those stress hormones,” says Murray. “If you have a toddler who’s hitting, shoving, throwing things — take him for a walk, or throw a ball for him to chase.” Other good outlets: a lump of playdough to pound; blocks to build with and knock down; a big sheet of paper and some markers for vigorous scribbling.

• Help her relax. When our bodies are relaxed, our minds are also calmed. Your child might enjoy a mini-massage after
a hard day. Or you may be able to teach her to breathe in and then release her breath with a hah sound, or blow it out as if
blowing out candles.

• Encourage self-help. We all have self-soothing strategies — we put on music we love or arrange coffee with a friend because we know these simple actions will help us feel better. You can begin to teach your child that his favourite bunny or blanket can have a calming effect. It starts with including his bear when you comfort your child, on your lap, explains McNelles. Gradually, your child will make the association between holding his bear and feeling better.

• Listen to your child. Even a child too small to talk may be able tell you what’s bothering him, says Murray. Sabrina Scrimegour’s son, Nolan, was 21 months when Scrimegour needed an emergency Caesarean section. There was no time even for a toddler-sized explanation. Nolan coped well with the sudden — and prolonged — separation. “When the baby was finally released from the hospital and we arrived home, Rachael — our oldest — wanted to hold her little sister,” says Scrimegour. “Nolan started to cry. We didn’t know what was wrong. He kept pointing to the baby and cried more. I put Elizabeth in his lap and he started to smile. He stroked her head and kissed her cheek and was so happy.” Nolan — without words — had told his parents how much he wanted to give a special welcome to the new baby. “He adores his little sister,” says Scrimegour. “I believe the bond between them is partly because we listened to what he tried to tell us that day when he wanted to hold her.”

This article was originally published on May 12, 2008

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