Stressed-Out Kids: Learning to Deal with Life's Ups and Downs
In This Article:
Reversion to Younger Behavior and Becoming More Dependent
Ricky had given up his pacifier on his third birthday, but for months later when his sister was born his mother kept finding him the crib with the baby, pulling the pacifier out of her mouth and sticking it in his! After removing him time after time to no avail, she final told him, "If you need a pacifier that badly, you can have it until your fourth birthday" And that's what he did. On his fourth birthday he dropped it in the garbage.
Sometimes we just need to be babied. When kids are stressed, it's not uncommon for them to suddenly want the blanket they gave up months or even years ago, start talking like a baby, demand to be picked up and carried, or want a bottle just like their infant brother or sister.
During a period of economic recession my phone was ringing off the hook. The callers were parents of four-year-olds who were wetting. Al of the kids had been dry for months, some for nearly two years, and suddenly they were having accidents. Their parents were frustrated and furious. Why, they wondered, was this child suddenly urinating on the floor? My response to their question was a question of my own: "Has anyone lost a job?" I suspect the callers thought that I hadn't heard them correctly or that I was off in another ballpark. Inevitably, I'd have to ask my question again, and after a moment they'd tell me, indeed, their partner or they had been terminated. And then they'd ask incredulously, "How did you know?" When a breadwinner loses a job, there's major stress in the household. Four-year-olds often wet when they're stressed. I suspect that cortisol is at work here, blocking the processing of information. Since the linkages aren't all that strong yet for four-year-olds, their brain stops being able to read the signals for a full bladder, and they have an accident.
Some aggressive behaviors often exhibited by parents and kids who are stressed include these:
Aggression and Opposition
Tad's day-care provider had warned his mother that if Tad didn't se tie down, he'd be expelled. Tad had become a terror. He'd mimic directions instead of complying with them. He'd stick out his tongue and call the other children and adults stupid. He was hitting, pulling hair, throwing things, and one day he even bit another child. After three moves, the loss of a favorite nanny, longer work hours for Mom and Dad, and two new day-care centers, the cortisol levels were so high in Tad that a mere look could put him on the attack.
Striking out is a common stress response for anyone because the" "thinking" brain that inhibits our behaviors gets overridden by the "fight-or-flight" response.
Demanding Control of Anything and Everything
Laura came home from school, demanding a snack. When her mother started making it, she insisted that her bagel be cut in a certain fashion. Then she didn't want the jelly her mother had pulled from the refrigerator, she wanted a different brand. Her mother gritted her teeth and took a deep, slow breath. "Laura," she replied, enunciating each word carefully, "what happened today that made you feel so powerless?" Laura's eyes filled with tears; then she blurted out, "I got a B on my speech, and I thought I was going to get an A. And the eighth graders were really mean on the bus. They think they're so cool because they're going to be in ninth grade and the year is almost over. They were pushing people around and saying you can't sit there. I hate those eighth-graders!"
When kids are experiencing stress, it's often because they are feeling powerless. As a result they become demanding and argumentative, wanting to control something. They'll order people around, even telling them that they can't drink out of a particular glass! Or they'll refuse to accept decisions made by others and declare instead that they will decide whether it's what restaurant the family will go to or what coat they will wear. Believe it or not, this isn't a future dictator. It's a stressed-out kid. You might notice that you, too, start barking out orders when the stress levels rise. Like your child you'd like to control something, too!
Looking at these behaviors you may realize that you've never thought about kids and stress. You might have imagined that your toddler was too young to understand that Grandpa died or that Dad moved out. But even infants sense the stress around them and their brain automatically puts them on alert. The cortisol levels rise, and the behaviors that confound you appear. How, you might wonder, are you supposed to know if your child is really stressed or just acting up? Remember, the emotion coach knows kids aren't just out to get them. There's a feeling or need fueling this behavior. When you see behaviors that indicate your child might be stressed, an understanding of events that cause stress for kids can help you confirm your hunch.
More on: Behavior and Discipline
From the book KIDS, PARENTS, AND POWER STRUGGLES: Winning for a Lifetime by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, published by HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. Copyright © 2000 by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka. All rights reserved.
Buy the book at www.harpercollins.com.