“The perception of stress varies from child to child; serious threats may not disturb one child, while minor ones may be traumatic to another” (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2015).
Parents can’t know how stress will affect their child. Just like adults experiencing something new, the effect of stress is different for each toddler or infant.
What kind of stress can an infant or toddler experience?
Stress related to their own disability – medical testing and surgeries, evaluations, new doctors or therapists, and medications including injections or infusions.
Social/emotional stress related to how other children or their siblings treat them.
Abuse may be physical, emotional, sexual, and/or induced substance abuse to the child, a sibling or a parent.
Sensing something is wrong related to a parent crying, shouting, or even speaking faster than normal.
An infant used to hearing a normal heart rhythm in the parent holding them, can be stressed when the parent holding the child has an increased heartbeat.
Have a parent or family member with a new injury or illness, such as dad coming home from deployment with an amputated arm; or a sibling diagnosed with cancer who can no longer play with the toddler.
Relocations, divorce, new parental figures, new child in the house, loss of a family member, loss of a pet, etc.
Anything within the family structure can cause stress to the child ages 0-3, especially if it causes stress to others in the home.
PTSD is something typically thought of when a service member returns home with signs of nightmares, heightened anxiety, or inability to talk through what they have been through. Stress and in some cases, PTSD can be found in the youngest of children which can present in social, emotional or physical problems.
Step back a moment, remember a time in your own life when something negative had happened. Maybe a lost job, a family pet died, there was an unwanted job transfer, or you received bad news. Did it only impact you, or did it affect the entire family? The stress of one family member can affect (and change) everyone in a family. An infant or toddler may not understand what is happening around them, but they can feel the tension or stress in the parent, sibling or family as a whole.
The reality is that younger children do not recognize trauma or crisis on their own, but they actually watch their parents or older siblings for their reactions to unexpected situations. For example: when Riley, age 2, sees mom crying when she talks on the phone with her grandmother – he knows something is wrong. Even the youngest child is very intuitive. Will he understand that Grandpa just died? Of course not, but he knows mom is sad – therefore Riley is unsettled and stressed. How this may manifests in a 2 year old can be very different from how mom manifests her own stress or sadness.
The younger the child the more they are likely to be sheltered from the crisis or a traumatic event. What is known is that a child’s “early development depends greatly on the health and well-being of their parents” (National Research Council and Institute of Medicine). As life reaches out to each family, stress cannot be avoided. Knowing some of the causes of stress in the young child; and the signs of how stress might be seen, will provide transition to a healthier, well-adjusted family.
Some of the Typical Signs of Stress in the child 0-3 are:
Stomach or headaches
Changes in mood, more irritable, cries more, doesn’t cry when appropriate
Isolates self from others, wants to stay in bed, or under table or in closet
Unexplained changes in sleeping habits
Unexplained changes in eating habits
Fear of previously accepted people, places or situations
Some children, especially those with low immune systems (Asthma and allergies included) may run fevers when under stress
Another concern is a child’s stomach or headache, for example, may or may not be due to stress. Whatever the cause, these symptoms are very real and confusing to the child. If there are recurring issues with physical symptoms, the child should be seen by the primary care physician to rule out any medical issues. If cleared medically, take a step back and look at the family as a whole. Not to put fault on anyone, but to recognize that there may be other issues not currently being addressed.
Although an infant/toddler would not have a clue what the stress is about, they can still sense when the parents are stressed. He/she would in turn express their own form of stress, such as displaying excessive bouts of crying, making it challenging for the parent to understand. Some children with low immune systems may even exhibit fever with stress.
Some symptoms such as irritability could be difficult to decipher in a two-three year old, as acting out can be developmentally age appropriate. The family would be better served to start with their primary care provider to evaluate the child’s developmental, psycho-social, and physical well-being.
If therapy is discussed for the infant/toddler, he or she would be referred to the nearest Early Intervention Services available. Therapy may include Play therapy, Speech, or even Family Therapy.
It is just as important for the family to get help as it is for the child. Helping the rest of the family deal with their own stress, will in turn help the child feel safer and free from stress.
Stress hits individuals of all ages, from a parent returning from war to a domestic violence victim; from the first-hand observation of a traumatic event to losing a job. Being a member of a household with someone who is going through stress, anxiety or PTSD can also have an overwhelming impact on the family.
A child feels the result of the stress on the whole family, no matter how sheltered he or she is. The underlying issue, whether for the child or another family member must be addressed with the entire family in mind to start the healing.
Ways to Help Families in Stressful Situations
Help parents to understand that it is not their fault – stress is a natural response to things beyond their control.
Listening to their concerns – it may just be they need to talk it through
Share your own experience (if appropriate) with family stress
Share support group contacts (as appropriate)
Encourage parent to continue to reach out to their family and friends, or Primary Care Physician, Behavioral Health Agencies, Tricare, Clergy, or Counselor.
Everyone needs to know they are not alone, that there is someone they can lean on when times are overwhelming or simply beyond their control. Giving up control is hard to do, so many may not ask for help. All you can do in those times is be there, letting them know you aren’t going anywhere. When a child can feel stress within the family it is not a healthy situation for anyone in the family. The most important responsibility you have as a parent or professional is to listen first; support the parent or family second; and only then is it helpful to offer up possibilities.