Little Kids, Big Stress: How to Help Kids Cope

11 min read  |  June 09, 2023  | 
Disponible en Español |

When parents ask Child Psychologist Abigail Peskin, Ph.D., how to calm a tempestuous toddler throwing an epic tantrum, she offers an analogy. 

“Imagine the last time you cried. If I tried to teach you algebra at that point, you could not learn a thing. For a child, that’s the level of difficulty at the point of a tantrum. That’s why we want to teach coping skills outside of the tantrum.” 

Dr. Peskin teaches Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT) at the Mailman Center for Child Development (MCCD), part of the University of Miami Health System. 

Set realistic expectations for dealing with your child.

Parenting three-to-nine-year-olds is easier when you manage your expectations. Dr. Peskin recommends learning what actions are developmentally appropriate at each age. 

“Some parents have a better idea of what’s developmentally typical if they’ve seen their child interact with other children their age. It can be more difficult for parents with multiple children when each one is so different from the other. If one child could calm themselves at two years old, their sibling may not have the same capability.” 

She provides “psychosocial support” to help families navigate these challenges. 

To address behavior issues, she might ask, “How long does your child stay upset?” When discussing preschoolers, she emphasizes their limited communication skills: “Your kid is saying three words right now. Tantrums are normal.”

Tears, tantrums, and more subtle signs of stress

How do you know when a child with a limited vocabulary or a lack of emotional maturity is stressed? Crying and toddler temper tantrums are obvious; other signs of emotional expression might be more subtle:

Change in behavior. If your sunny, sweet-natured son suddenly becomes aggressive or your outdoing daughter becomes quiet and shy, ask open-ended questions of them and their caregiver or teacher. What brought on this change?

Exaggerated behavior. An energetic kid who becomes “overly silly” might be excessively tired. Youthful enthusiasm is one thing, hyperactive or frenetic behavior may indicate physical or emotional stress.

Withdrawal. An otherwise social youngster who withdraws from their normal activities and routine for no clear reason is cause for concern. 

Whining. The bane of parenthood, whining could indicate tension or anxiety.

Physical behavior. “Using words takes energy when you’re stressed; some kids get more physical and start hitting,” Dr. Peskin says.

Fatigue. The eyes are windows to the soul. A normally spunky child whose eyes look tired could be going through a tough time or need rest and recovery time.

Sleep issues. “If everything else is consistent and sleep issues arise, it could be caused by stress,” Dr. Peskin says. Despite protests, little ones thrive on routine and a regular sleep/wake schedule. Falling asleep in front of the television or other screens creates poor sleep hygiene, now and later in life. 

Aging out of outbursts: how should you tackle a tantrum?

Tantrums can have multiple goals, Dr. Peskin says. 

“Sometimes the child is seeking attention, or they want something.” 

It’s an all-too-common scenario: You’re grocery shopping and your son or daughter sees a toy they can’t live without. You refuse, and tears and ear-splitting screams ensue. If the meltdown doesn’t subside, Dr. Peskin suggests calmly stating, “We’re going to stop shopping and go home now,” and follow through on your promise. 

“I don’t recommend teaching new coping strategies during a tantrum,” Dr. Peskin says.

What if there’s no food at home and you’re a single parent with no budget for home delivery, so you can’t leave the store without finishing your shopping? 

“If you can’t ignore until the end of the tantrum, get the toy right away – don’t wait 45 minutes,” she says. “The worst approach is giving in after a child cries for 45 minutes. That teaches them that if they tantrum long enough, they will get what they want, and tantrums will get longer and longer as a result.” 

When kids demand attention, there are ways to engage, even when shopping. Depending on the age, you could play “I Spy,” asking them to point out colors or shapes as you move through the store or simply engage in a conversation with them. Yes, it distracts from your primary goal of getting in and out of the store, but it makes your child feel noticed and included. And there will come a time when having a conversation with your offspring seems a distant memory. Just ask a parent of teenagers. 

When should kids grow out of temper tantrums? 

“If there are no neurological problems and the child is cognitive average, tantrums at around age eight or nine are a concern,” Dr. Peskin says. 

If your eight- or nine-year-old relies on outbursts to get what they want, speak to your pediatrician to rule out underlying physical causes, and if necessary, follow up with a child psychologist. 

Simple self-soothing techniques

“Research tells us there are three distinct ways to teach children about responding to emotions,” Dr. Peskin says. “They are explicit teaching, modeling, and how parents respond to their children’s emotions.”

With explicit teaching, stay calm. You might say, “It’s okay to be angry, but hitting is not okay. Let’s do this instead.” 

The alternative could be punching a pillow. Young children also respond to visual cues. To build a pause into their behavior, teach them to take a deep breath while lifting their arms overhead, then release the breath while lowering their arms, similar to a jumping jack. You could also say, “Smell the flowers, now blow out the candles,” while modeling a deep inhale and exhale. 

Tensing and relaxing the muscles teaches the body to relax. Tell your child to squeeze their fists like they’re squeezing a lemon, then release the tension by making a face like a lion. 

Some preschools, Dr. Peskin says, have a “cozy corner” where children learn to release emotions by singing or listening to a song, engage in physical activity such as jumping jacks, or play with visual aids that teach about feelings. You might create a cozy corner at home filled with toys and comfort items such as a teddy bear, stress ball, or soft blanket. Dr. Peskin recalls a boy who kept getting into trouble for pushing his friends. In her clinic, he found an outlet for his frustration by pushing against a wall painted with handprints. 

Sometimes, the stress-busting solutions are surprisingly simple:

  • Active, outdoor playtime
  • One-on-one time with parents
  • Actively listening to the child
  • Quiet time
  • Expressing feelings through art – painting, drawing, working with clay
  • Regular meals, snacks, and bedtimes

Using “time out” effectively

“Like many discipline strategies, time out can be done incorrectly with negative consequences,” Dr. Peskin says.

“Use it when you are calm versus yelling, ‘Get in time out!’”

She says that successful time-outs exist in a system of “planned consequences” rather than being a reaction that the child does not expect.

When the child is calm and behaving appropriately, you might offer verbal praise. “You’re listening and playing nicely right now. The next time you don’t listen, you will go to time out,” or “If you hit your brother, you will go to time out.”

When the unacceptable behavior resurfaces, follow through. “PCIT teaches that time out is an isolated break that’s important for emotional regulation. It helps calm the child. Don’t end the time out until your child is quiet for at least five seconds,” Dr. Peskin says.

Words have power 

Over time, even toddlers can develop an emotional vocabulary. “Make emotions something you talk about in your home. Read age-appropriate books about feelings and watch television shows like Bluey or Daniel Tiger,” Dr. Peskin says. Watch these shows with your toddler so you develop a shared language about feelings.

“Labeling” emotions builds understanding, as in this example, “I’m sad we got a flat tire because it means we can’t go to the library today,” or “I saw you stomp your foot. It looks like you’re upset.” Speaking of labels, “upset” is a good “catch-all term” because it avoids assuming the mood is anger when it might be something completely different.

Complimenting children for good conduct is positive reinforcement and may work in stressful situations when you say something like, “It looks like you’re angry, but you’re doing a good job keeping your body calm,” or “It looks like you’re feeling shy today. Sometimes I feel shy, too.” Conversely, avoid negative labeling.

A child labeled as an “angry kid” may live up to that title. 

Label emotions as a state, not a trait.

Dr. Peskin

Most children are highly observant. If you’re out in public and your child sees another child crying, it’s a teachable moment, Dr. Peskin says.

“Children usually have a lot to say about these situations. You could say, ‘I see you’re looking at that boy who is crying. It looks like he’s feeling sad about something.’”

Talking about it (at a respectful distance) helps develop empathy and emotional intelligence.

Denial doesn’t work

Denying feelings – your own or your child’s – creates confusion and suppresses healthy expression. Yelling a red-faced “I’m not angry!” when junior breaks your phone indicates that strong feelings are unacceptable.

“I’m angry, and I can’t talk about it right now” gives you time to compose yourself before discussing the incident. Likewise, telling a child, “You have nothing to be sad about!” invalidates their feelings.

Uncomfortable as it can be to confront feelings, it builds resiliency. When one playmate takes a toy away from another, some kids think, “He took my toy, so I’ll just leave.”

Dr. Peskin challenges parents to consider, “What if your child told his playmate how it felt to have the toy taken and asked nicely to get it back? The more they do it, the less terrifying it becomes. Refusing to engage with the stressor and leaving versus dealing with the situation can become a lifelong pattern.” 

She does advise, however, teaching at your child’s pace and not insisting that they use a specific coping style; instead, consider what they find relaxing. After a hard day at school, that might mean kicking a ball around the yard or curling up with a blanket and book. 

When should you seek outside help for these behaviors?

“It’s more about what you can cope with. Parents should not feel overwhelmed on a daily basis about how to help their child manage emotions. There are people who can help,” Dr. Peskin says. 

Other situations that benefit from professional help include: 

  • Parents use solid, consistent strategies, but the issues are ongoing.
  • The school routinely calls with concerns.
  • The child’s stress level is so intense they can’t play with others.
  • The child can’t calm themselves. “Often, we can redirect the child into another activity, even if they’re having a tantrum. If they always rely on someone else to calm them and don’t have any independent coping strategies, this could be an issue.” While this behavior is influenced by age, speak to your pediatrician or a child behavior expert if you have concerns. 
  • Inability to regulate – a child who cries or tantrums until they fall asleep from exhaustion may benefit from seeing a child therapist. 

If you keep encountering obstacles, reach out for help. 

Some children struggle emotionally through no fault of their own but for neurological or developmental reasons. Learning to embrace emotions in all of their exhilarating and frustrating glory can take a lifetime. Giving your children an early start helps smooth the bumps along the way. 

Nancy Moreland is a regular contributor to the UHealth Collective. She has written for several major health care systems and the CDC. Her writing also appears in the Chicago Tribune and U.S. News & World Report.

Dr. Peskin’s recommended reads to help children learn about emotions and coping:

  • Shy Spaghetti and Excited Eggs: A Kid’s Menu of Feelings
  • The Way I Feel Book series
  • The Mindful Tots Board Books

Tags: desirable behavior, distract your child, Dr. Abigail Peskin, sense of control, undesirable behaviors

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