How To Help Your Children To Cope With Stress

With symptoms like headache, abdominal pain and sleep disorders, children increasingly suffer from stress. It can start in infancy, and continue into school. Stable relationships, time together with the family and daily rituals can help children forge an inner sense of security, to help manage stress, says the anthroposophic child and youth physician Dr. Christoph Meinecke.

Childhood and stress shouldn’t be associated with each other, yet this seems to be happening more and more.

Dr Christoph Meinecke: Even as a young doctor I witnessed children who suffered from stress, but the incidences have indeed increased significantly. And at all ages, particularly amongst schoolchildren, but also in infants and children in daycare.

So even infants are affected?

CM: Yes, and in high numbers: nearly every third baby has difficulties sleeping, cries excessively or has feeding problems.

Why is this happening?

CM: When a mother is stressed, her child can absorb her stress hormones, during pregnancy or later through breastfeeding. A parent’s emotional state in general affects a child’s susceptibility to stress. Babies in particular need bonding and loving affection. They need to feel that someone is there for them, who notices when they cry and then tends to them. High levels of stress are triggered in small children where this is missing, for they cannot survive on their own.

How can parents tell if their child is experiencing stress in kindergarden?

CM: Among children in daycare we are increasingly diagnosing sleep disorders, hyperactivity, separation anxiety and heightened susceptibility to infections going beyond the normal experience of childhood illnesses. Stress is actually a healthy reaction of the body, enabling it to be particularly alert and capable in challenging situations. When the equilibrium between this state of activity and a state of rest and recuperation is no longer maintained, when there is an imbalance between tension and relaxation, the stress reactions in the body gain the upper hand. This is harmful in the long term and can lead to illness. Cortisol, which is one of the stress hormones, weakens the immune system and the body’s ability to resist infection.

Children & Stress: The incidences have increased significantly

How does stress express itself among school children?

CM: Many children suffer from headaches, diffuse abdominal pain, back pain and sleep problems. They might experience depressive moods, aggression and difficulty concentrating. These are often accompanied by fears of exclusion or failure. In general, children today are much more restless than before.

In your opinion, what are the reasons?

CM: Many children today are more stressed than in the past and therefore need stronger personal relationships and individual attention. However, large classes mean that children might not get this from their teachers and they might not find it at home, either. Relationships provide stability, and through that, security. If there’s no time for that, uncertainty arises.

Does this mean that the stronger the bonds children have, especially with their parents, the less stressed they are?

CM: It need not necessarily be the parents, but a different person with whom the child has a strong emotional bond. Someone, who the child knows “believes in me, with whom I can be my true self, who acknowledges and appreciates me, and gives me security, protection as well as independence.” In such an atmosphere, a child can learn how to manage stress. Of course, living by example also helps: parents should not only talk about their own stress, but also take the time for breaks and rest.

What else can lead to pressure at school?

CM: If parents set expectations that are too high, this can cause additional pressure. Some children feel overwhelmed at the thought of going to the next level of school and become whiny and sad or irritated and aggressive. If a child’s behaviour changes and continues in this way, it’s an indication of emotional distress. What’s important is not what the parents want – adults are responsible for the needs of their children, not vice versa. Only when the environment is compatible with their needs can children truly unfold their talents. Another common stress factor is starting school too early in the morning. Children who can’t wake up on their own have more stress hormones in their blood, which in turn makes them more vulnerable to learning problems. 

How important is it that children have leisure time in the afternoon?

CM: Children need inspiration, they have to move and conquer the world, they want to learn new things. Overscheduling afternoon activities can become more exhausting than stimulating, especially when there’s homework to do as well. Unstructured free time should be the rule, not the exception. Parents should ensure that their children don’t have too much screen time on the computer, smartphone or game consoles. Such constant visual stimuli can make children excitable and restless. If children no longer physically encounter each other but mainly through online social media, personal contact can become more difficult for them – which in turn can cause anxiety.

What turning points in a child’s development can expose children to stress?

CM: Starting school for the first time is one such turning point. Faced with the new demands of school, some children need to take naps again to regenerate. Another crucial turning point occurs around the age of 9 or 10, marking a departure from the carefree time of childhood. Children stop telling their parents their every thought, and notice that their parents are only human. This might make them sad for a while, causing feelings of discomfort, headaches or stomach pain. Parents who are aware of this can accompany this time appropriately and respond to their children with sensitivity. This means not reacting with annoyance but with understanding if your child reacts impudently when posed a question.

What can parents do so that their children experience stability and as little stress as possible?

CM: Above all, it’s important to have regular times that you spend together, such as at dinner. Parents should be present and not distracted by phone calls, emails or surfing the Internet. Now should be the time to truly engage with each other. It’s also incredibly important that parents listen to their children without immediately responding with well-meant advice. Children need to know that their parents accept them for who they are, that what they say resonates with their parents. And parents should not dismiss their children’s feelings with platitudes such as, “Don’t worry, everything will be fine.” 

How should parents deal instead with what their children reveal to them?

CM: Much better is to mirror them by saying something like, “You are really sad, tell me, what’s going on?” Or if their friend has suddenly stopped playing with them, which does happen sometimes, then don’t try to explain why they acted in this way. Instead, stay with the emotional experience of your own child. This makes them feel acknowledged and secure, which is what they need in this emotionally difficult situation. Rituals can also be comforting, such as reading aloud at bedtime. These become ingrained rhythms that give children a sense of orientation, bolstering their confidence and reducing stress. As soon as the book is opened at bedtime, the body starts to release more sleep hormones. And massages, especially on the back, but also on the legs and feet, for example with lavender oil, create moments of loving affection, when the child can feel completely safe. For older children in crèche or school, reflecting on the day’s events can also help to relieve tension. Ask, for example, “What is something nice that happened today?” Just let your child talk, and take part but without giving advice if possible.

Is there is a difference between how adults and children manage stress?

CM: Children are usually much competent than adults in dealing with stress. They still have a stronger sense of what they need. It might be sleep or play where fantasy worlds enable them to express their feelings. It’s important that we let them to do this and not interrupt them. This enables children to feel competent and is the best way for them to find their own inner balance. It’s the best prevention against stres

Children need leisure time

Is there is a difference between how adults and children manage stress?

CM: Children are usually much more competent than adults in dealing with stress. They still have a stronger sense of what they need. It might be sleep or play where fantasy worlds enable them to express their feelings. It’s important that we let them to do this and not interrupt them. This enables children to feel competent and is the best way for them to find their own inner balance. It’s the best prevention against stress.


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Dr. Christoph Meinecke

Anthroposophic child & youth physician

He works at the Havelhoehe community hospital. And is part of an anthroposophically oriented group medical practice. Dr. Meinecke is also co-founder and managing director of the Havelhoehe Family Forum, which offers family therapy and consultation services