Most children have to cope with unexpected stress at some time. Some sources of stress are commonplace like extended illness, sports injuries for older siblings, out-of-town business trips for parents and sick grandparents who need extra care. Then there are the big stressors like death, divorce, substance abuse, long-term unemployment, financial problems and relocation. Any or all of these stressors can turn family life topsy-turvy, at least for a while. They can also have a negative impact on children's feelings and behaviors.
When stress hits out of the blue, one of the most helpful things parents can do is let the situation be known to significant adults in their child's life -- teachers, daycare providers, camp counselors, even employers (if the child is old enough for an after-school job). There is no need to go into details -- just indicate that the family is having a hard time right now. Why is it important to alert adults that your child is coping with something new and unusual?
In times of stress, parents naturally become preoccupied with how to handle the new situation they face and, without realizing it, can become physically or emotionally distant from a child. While the child may not understand the reason behind this change in behavior, he or she may feel ignored and neglected. And this feeling, especially in young children, evokes anxieties about being abandoned or their needs not being met.
Such distress can cause children to be withdrawn or disruptive in daycare or at school, or to be less attentive during after-school activities or jobs. Some children will act out these strong feelings in unacceptable ways, while other children may regress and exhibit less mature behavior. When children feel frightened, abandoned or sorry for themselves and then get angry about what's happening to them, they may destroy school materials, be aggressive with other children or resistant to adults. When another adult knows that times are tough at home, she can empathize with the child and accept his or her feelings. Then she can help the child find more acceptable ways to express these feelings through talk, play, art, sports and the like.
Being understood decreases the pressure of the distressed feelings and increases children's trust. It's empowering to children when they can express what they're feeling and get some support from the adults around them. Since children, even teenagers, usually act out their feelings instead of reporting experiences in words, adults who are in the dark about the difficulties in the child's life cannot help the child feel better. In fact, they can often make matters worse because they react to the child's behavior instead of responding to the feelings behind it.
Some children may feel embarrassed if they know the teacher has been told about the tough times at home. Parents can communicate with teachers or caregivers through written notes, phone calls, or face to face, but not in front of the child. In the case of children in middle or high school, parents can notify the guidance counselor, a classroom teacher or building principal. Don't expect teachers, caregivers or employers to initiate conversations with the child about what's going on at home. They don't want to be therapists or violate the privacy of the family, but they do want to understand the behavior of children in their care.
The flip side of the coin is that when parents see behaviors at home they don't understand -- bed wetting, tantrums, sleep disturbances -- it's useful to ask the other adults in the child's life if something unusual is going on. The child may be distressed by difficulty with schoolwork, troubles on the playground or the lunchroom, or problems with peers. Share what you're seeing at home and your concern, then ask the teacher or caregiver for help. Ask if she has seen anything that could shed light on your child's behavior.
Teachers, caregivers, camp counselors, and occasionally even employers are partners with parents in trying to foster a child's healthy development and learning. Communication is important in the best of times, but in tough times it's essential.
Source: Sue West, Department of Human Development and Family Studies, New York State College Human Ecology, Cornell University. Parent Pages was developed by Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County. HD 95
Last updated August 8, 2015