Talking with children about terrorism
(audio and video)
Purdue Extension publications:
Helping Children Cope with Stress
Other resources for dealing with child stress
and grade school: Understanding Children's Fears
Stress in Children
for Parents and Teachers
Children Cope with Disaster
takes steps to confront terrorist threat
Children Cope with Stress
Joanne Samarzija, Child Development and Family Studies
Judith A. Myers-Walls, Extension Specialist, Human Development
Stress is a response to change or conflict. It is usually considered
to be negative and damaging. However, not all forms or levels of stress
are bad. Competing in sports and achieving in school or at work are examples
of positive stressors. Stress becomes negative when the pressures surrounding
these and other situations become too great or when several small stressors
occur at once, and one can no longer adjust. It is becoming evident that
this type of stress overload is taking its toll on children as well as
This publication explains how stress exists in your child's world from
infancy through the teen years. You will learn how to recognize signs
of stress and help your child express, understand, and manage pressure.
Suggestions on preventing excessive stress for your child also are provided.
Children and Stress
How your child reacts to stress depends upon both your child and the
source of stress. Many children have survived catastrophes without permanent
emotional or psychological damage, while other children cannot easily
adjust to less traumatic experiences. The personality of the child, as
well as available support from family members, plays a major role in the
child's ability to handle stressful situations.
Developmental or Normative Stress
Another important factor influencing your child's reaction to stress
is the actual nature of the stressor--the situation or event that causes
the stress. One category of stressors is called developmental or normative
stress. Developmental stress accompanies the normal growing experiences
of childhood. Some examples of this type of stressor are: dealing with
strangers as an infant, being separated from parents, starting or changing
schools, and adjusting to puberty. Most children deal with this form of
stress quite successfully and become able to adapt to the changes that
cause it by learning from the changes. Basic stress management methods
that will be used throughout your child's life are developed during this
growth process. Normative stress carries with it a low level of risk for
your child's overall development.
Other family and personal pressures can be more intense and critical
to your child's well-being than normative stressors. This type is called
critical stress. These stressors are events that do not occur in
every child's life, but are common. Some examples include unusually high
or low levels of stimulation, moving to a new home, or the child being
hospitalized. These events create medium levels of risk to your child's
development. Changes in your child's usual behavior and personality might
be seen in response to critical stress. Although more serious and threatening
than developmental stress, most children manage to overcome these critical
pressures if family members and friends are sensitive and supportive.
Serious unexpected events often produce the most severe and catastrophic
stress reactions in children. Some examples of this level of stress are:
serious illnesses of the child or a family member, natural disasters,
and abuse of the child. This level is associated with the highest risk
for the child. The child experiencing such a crisis is often too overwhelmed
to use basic resources for dealing with pressure and fear. A child suffering
this level of stress has a great need for the understanding and support
of family members, and may require more specialized care and counseling
than parents are prepared or able to provide on their own.
Chart 1 outlines the three types of stress and gives examples of each
for various age levels.
Chart 1 Sources of Childhood Stress
Level Typical age
of stress Source of stress of child
Normative Unfamiliar faces, surroundings Infants, toddlers
or Sudden movement/loud noises Infants, toddlers
developmental Separation from parents Infants, toddlers
Arrival of new sibling Young children
(low risk) Starting school Young children
Being punished/disciplined Young children
Trying to achieve Young children
Peer acceptance Preadolescents
Adjusting to puberty Preadolescents
Critical Lack of stimulation Infants, toddlers
(moderate Overhearing parents fighting Young children,
Moving to a new home Young children,
Being hospitalized Preadolescents
Family financial problems Preadolescents
Catastrophic Serious illness of self, family Young children,
members, or close friend preadolescents
(high risk) Home destroyed by natural Young children,
Divorce of parents Young children,
Physical or sexual abuse Young children,
Death of family member or Young children,
close friend preadolescents
Recognizing Stress in Your Child
Stress is a physical tension of the mind and body which must be released
for survival. Stress becomes a problem when pressure builds up to a point
where the person can no longer adjust to changes in life. Releasing stress
can be done in numerous ways which effect the child physically, emotionally,
Because children have individual personalities, they react and handle
stress in their own, often unpredictable, ways. Seven-year-old Kim reacts
to attending a new school by bullying the other children. In a similar
setting, eight-year-old Kathy becomes shy and withdrawn in the new classroom.One
child may be deeply upset by a given event, while another may not give
a second's notice to the same situation.
Recognizing stress reactions in children is not always easy. Even if
you regularly discuss issues with your children, you may discover that
they are slow to talk about problems which trouble them. Children think
the world revolves around them; therefore, they sometimes feel they cause
events. Often these events are not positive, and the children end up feeling
misplaced guilt. Children may be scared or embarrassed to mention problems
or negative feelings, especially if life at home is unsettled. You must
not depend on words alone to signal when your child is upset. A child
often will deny being troubled. Changes in behavior and personality are
better signs of stress overload in children. A list of several common
behaviors that can signal tension in children follows. Although they are
arranged under specific age levels, most of these behaviors can be seen
in children of any age. Most of them are normal characteristics of a child's
development. However if the behaviors occur constantly, or if several
of them persist over a long period of time, they may indicate a problem.
Infants and Preschoolers School-age Children Teenagers
Uncontrollable crying Bed-wetting after Frequent whining Aggression
Rocking back and being trained Fearfulness Withdrawal and
forth Thumb-sucking Nightmares sadness
Excessive sleep Clinging to parents Bed-wetting Insomnia
Head-banging Exaggerated fears Refusing to eat Excessive sleep
Uncontrollable Overeating Destructive actions
crying Tics (nervous twitches) Depression
Temper tantrums Tendency to daydream Hypochondria
Frequent illness Uncontrollable
Understanding and Helping to Control Your Child's Stress
It is easy to ignore or laugh away children's worries and concerns when
comparing them to adult problems. Adults may say, "Why are you worrying
about making the basketball team? It's not THAT important. You should
have my worries!" But landing a spot on the junior high basketball team
may be just as important to your child as a job promotion is to you. Remember
what it was like to be five, nine, or fifteen years old. Problems are
just as real to children at that age as they are to you at your age.
At times it may seem that children live in separate worlds of play and
fantasy. Do not be fooled into believing that your children are not aware
of changes taking place. A divorcing parent may say, "My child is too
young to realize what divorce is, or to understand why we're splitting.
She doesn't need to be worried about such things. It's enough that I'm
falling apart about the divorce." Your children will not be protected
or spared from any stress by being uninformed about major family events
or crises. Children are talented at seeing and hearing matters from which
they are supposed to be shielded.
Although children may recognize family events or crises and even be
aware of global issues like the nuclear arms race, they do not have the
same resources as adults for dealing with the resulting stress. There
are several developmental reasons for this:
* children do not have mature reasoning skills;
* they lack an accurate understanding of cause and effect; and
* they have not had the chance to become skilled at handling stress.
For example, a mother was telling a friend that she was going to traffic
court to argue a parking ticket and would not be able to pick up her daughter
from school that morning. When the daughter arrived at school, she burst
into tears moaning that her mom was going to jail and she would never
see her again.
You may decide not to tell your children about the divorce, the up-coming
hospital visit, or Grandma's death, but by piecing together a few words
or a change in behavior, your children may create their own version of
what has happened. Often their account can be far from realistic and much
more dramatic than the actual situation.
Spare your children added harm and stress. When a situation arises that
will affect them in some way, discuss it with them honestly, simply, and
at their level of understanding.
Preventing Stress Overload
Your child cannot be protected from stress totally. Yet, you can help
your child prevent pressures from building to a dangerous level. It is
difficult to foresee what situations may strongly affect your child. However,
there are several life experiences for which any child can be prepared.
Reading books and discussing issues with your child can help assist
in preparing him or her for a new experience or change in life. Visits
and other activities also can be helpful. What follows is a list of suggestions
for helping to prepare your children for a variety of common childhood
Birth of a Sibling
When planning or expecting another child, prepare your other children
for the new arrival before the birth. Share books about babies and allow
your children to join in the preparations and possibly the delivery. Hospitals
often have sibling preparation programs for children. Communicate that
the baby will belong to the whole family, not just to Mom and Dad.
Before your child starts school for the first time or changes schools,
it is a good idea to visit the school while it is in session. Have your
child meet the teacher. Practice walking to the school or riding the bus.
Moving to a New Home
If you are expecting to move to a new city or neighborhood, remember
to consider what the area has to offer your child. Take car rides through
the area before the actual move takes place, or obtain photos of the new
home. Allow your child to grieve the loss of old friends and places. Letter
writing after the move can be helpful.
Hospitalization or a visit to the emergency room can be quite disturbing
to a child. Prepare your child to know what to expect. Check your community's
hospital or talk with your physician about available hospital preparation
programs and on-site visits if you expect a hospital stay.
Your child can be prepared for handling emergencies such as a fire,
storm, or other disaster. Teach him or her basic safety and emergency
rules. Many community agencies often hold first aid courses for children.
Look into them for your child.
If you and your spouse decide to divorce, do not leave your child uninformed.
Children are aware of problems at home. While it may be difficult, a truthful
discussion about the divorce will make things easier in the long run.
Such discussion should lessen the chance of your child developing imagined
fears or misplaced guilt.
Your child can be prepared for the feelings of loss which go with death.
Useful learning experiences for examining life and death issues can be
gained from the death of a pet or even the life cycle of a plant. Let
your child attend funeral services of distant relatives or friends with
you. The death of someone not close to the family is likely to be less
emotional for you and your child than the death of a close friend or family
member. It provides a chance for you and your child to discuss the subject.
Helping Your Child Manage Stress
Some stress is a normal part of growing and living because your child's
world--and your child--are constantly changing. Normal pressures and tension
will naturally disappear as your child's reasoning and mental skills grow
and experiences increase. This is especially true for the stress that
accompanies developmental growth. However, when stress reaches the crisis
level in your child, help from family members, a teacher, the family doctor,
or other professionals may be necessary. In most cases, though, you can
help your child cope with pressures of childhood by using the following
Think of how you react to stress. Children learn from imitating
the actions of parents and other adults. You may be surprised to discover
that he or she reacts to pressures the same way you do. If you do not
like what you see, a change may be in order for all.
Try to remember what it was like to be your child's age. View
the situation on the child's level of understanding. Only by looking at
the problem through your child's eyes can you grasp your child's feelings,
reactions, and fears. Do not deny or make fun of your child for his or
her worries. These worries are real to your child and need your attention.
Talk with your child about his or her concerns and problem behavior.
Communication is a source of information, comfort, and security. Tension
often reaches the boiling point when children feel like they are facing
a source of stress alone. Knowing that their worries can be expressed
helps relieve some of the pressure, as well as builds a more rewarding
Tell your child the truth about family matters and crises. Your
child does not live in a bubble. If you do not provide honest and simple
accounts of a stressful event, your child will probably create an even
more alarming explanation. The goal is to lessen or prevent your child's
stress. Explanations which are simple, accurate, and at the proper level
of understanding are best.
Involve your child in decision-making and problem-solving processes
when dealing with sources of stress. This will encourage your child's
feelings of power and control. Sources of stress will be with your child
throughout life, so by providing your child the necessary tools for handling
stress now you will be helping him or her to cope with stress better later
Select good children's books about stress and fears to read with
your child. Books about hospitalization, starting school, death, divorce,
a new brother or sister, and other life events are good sources of honest
information. They can clear up misunderstandings and feelings for your
child, as well as help you to discuss difficult topics. They can assure
your child that there are others in the world with the same problem, and
give suggestions on how to manage the situation. Recommended children's
books about sources of stress are listed at the end of this publication.
Use art and puppets to help your child express feelings and concerns.
Through the use of art materials, your child can express feelings and
thoughts that might be considered negative and unacceptable. These thoughts
and feelings then can be handled in an acceptable manner. Learning to
express emotions through creative channels gives the child an outlet for
built-up tension that can be used throughout life. Because young children
are limited in verbal ability, strong feelings can be expressed through
art experiences which involve psychomotor activity, such as clay for pounding,
paper for tearing and cutting, and nails for hammering. Puppets and dolls
provide opportunities to examine reality, rehearse solutions, express
emotions, gain control over situations, and encourage discussion.
Provide physical outlets to vent built-up tension. The inner
tension that is stored needs to be released. Encourage your child to participate
in physical activity when pressures seem ready to explode. Possibly join
your child in biking, swimming, running, or even gardening. Physical activity
releases negative tension through positive action. It is also important
to get plenty of rest and eat nutritionally balanced meals during periods
of high stress.
Be generous with hugs, kisses, and other signs of affection. Your child
needs love and understanding more than ever during times of stress.
For additional information, contact your county Extension office toll-free
For Further Reading
These suggested books for parents and children illustrate several of
the more common childhood sources of stress. Check your local library
for these and other books which can help you and your child prepare for
and learn how to manage stress.
Written for Children
Alexander, B. Nobody Asked Me If I Wanted a Baby Sister. New York. The
Dial Press, 1971. (sibling rivalry)
Elder, B. The Hospital Book. Baltimore. John Street Press, 1977. (illness)
Gackenback, D. Harry and the Terrible Whatzit. New York: Scholastic, 1977.
Gardner, R. A. The Boys and Girls Book About Divorce. New York: Bantam
Books, 1970. (divorce)
Mellonie, B. and Ingpen, R. Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death
to Children. New York: Bantam Books, 1983. (death)
Sweet, E. Something Happened to Me.Racine, WI: Mother Courage Press, 1981.
Viorst, J. The Tenth Good Thing About Barney. Bloomfield, CT: Atheneum,
Welber, R. Goodbye, Hello. New York: Random House, 1974. (starting school)
Written for Adults
Anthony, E. J. and Chiland, C. (eds). The Child in His Family: Children
and Their Parents in a Changing World. New York: John Wiley and Sons,
Arnold, L. E. Helping Parents Help Their Children. New York: Brunner/Mazel,
Barman, A. Helping Children Face Crises. Rockville, MD: National Institute
of Mental Health, 1976.
Wolff, S. Children Under Stress. London: Allen Lane, Penguin Press, 1969.
Wolman, B. Children's Fears. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1978.
Barman, A. Pressures on Children. Toronto: Public Affairs Committee, Inc.,
Dunn, J. Distress and Comfort. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press,
Elkind, D. The Hurried Child--Growing Up Too Fast, Too Soon. Reading,
MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1981.
Jalongo, M. R. "Using Crisis-Oriented Books With Young Children." Young
Children, 5 (1983): 29-36.
Klinzing, D. and Klinzing, D. The Hospitalized Child: Communication Techniques
for Health Personnel. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1977.