Stress and Your Preschooler
Clearer Understanding & How to Help
As adults with plenty of experience managing stress, we cope with it by learning to calm ourselves. Sometimes we forget that children lack our years of experience and maturity. Anyone who has ever visited a preschool classroom can attest that plenty of 3- to 6-year-olds have yet to learn or practice such coping skills. Understanding some of the underlying structures of stress may help us better guide them.
Stress and cortisol levels. Cortisol is a hormone produced by the outer portion of the adrenal gland in response to stress. It aids in digestion, the immune system, and energy usage. When we face challenges, cortisol levels spike and provide us with energy. Since it can suppress immunity when stress is chronic, stable levels are associated with good health. In fact, recent research published in Psychcentral (2010) suggests a relationship between cortisol levels and suicide risk.
Child health and development expert Sarah Watamura of the University of Denver looked at cortisol and stress in toddlers and preschoolers. She found that young kids were aware of stress within the family EVEN IF THE PARENTS TRIED TO HIDE IT.
The researchers suggest that paying attention to a preschooler’s stress signals (crying after separation, exhaustion after day care, trouble sleeping, or frequent illness) and then reacting with support helps.
Stressors for Preschoolers
What is stressing them? Interaction, for one thing. Watamura discovered that even more than separation anxiety, interaction with peers contributed to stress. Levels of cortisol often increased as children attempted to play with lots of others.
“At home, preschool-age children typically show a decreasing pattern of cortisol production across the day,” Watamura said. “At child care, many children show a rising pattern,” probably since they are more challenged there.
Family members also affect stress levels. A 2009 study published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry reported almost 15 percent of preschoolers have atypically high levels of depression and anxiety. This five-year exploration by Sylvana M. Cote and international researchers in Canada and France found that children with atypical levels were more likely to have mothers with a history of depression.
“We found that lifetime maternal depression was the second most important predictor of atypically high depressive and anxiety problems during preschool years,” Dr. Cote said. The researchers stress preventive interventions are needed to see a long-term impact on the well-being of kids at risk.
Combatting Stress With Nurturance
Nurturance matters. The amount of nurturing rat pups receive from their mothers (licking and grooming in infancy) has lasting effects on the stress response over the life cycle. Laurie Miller Brotman and researchers at the NYU School of Medicine found in studies of parenting and children’s stress response that in fact, there is a cause-effect relationship (2007).
They aimed to measure whether intervention for preschoolers at risk for antisocial behavior could alter the kids’ biological response to a stressful social situation (playing with a group of unfamiliar peers). After the intervention, cortisol levels of preschoolers who were taught coping skills were found to be lower than for those without instruction.
Brotman says results “provide further evidence that early intervention can have a profound effect on children.”
Nurturance may change the brain’s anatomy. Recent research, by child psychiatrists and neuroscientists at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, is the first to show that changes in the hippocampal region (a brain region strongly associated with memory and linked to the capacity to manage stress) of children’s brain anatomy are linked to a mother’s nurturing.
The researchers discovered that preschoolers whose mothers actively supported them during a stressful incident showed greater volume in the hippocampal. This finding supports a growing body of research suggesting what we suspected: nurturing kids early in life is critical to healthy development.
Tips to Help Stressed Out Preschoolers
• Provide assurance. If the stressor for your child is at home, Watamura says talk to your child about how you will be able to figure it out and that there’s no need for worry.
• Assess the connection. If your stressed child goes to day care or preschool, investigate to make sure your child’s teacher is bonding with her. Science shows that cortisol levels are more stable when there is a secure attachment.
• Ask around. Watamura suggests asking your care provider: “Does my child play well when she wants to play? How does she do when I leave? When are the roughest times of day?”
• Choices. Give your child appropriate ones. For example, let her pick a friend for a play date.
• Offer a heads up. To prevent a meltdown, make sure she knows what to expect—she’ll be better able to adjust to circumstances that could trigger stress.
• Remember all families struggle with stress. Watamura reminds that “Like adults, kids don’t always have to be happy” so you shouldn’t automatically try to “fix” things.
Michele Ranard has two children, a husband, and a master’s in counseling. She is also a former preschool teacher.