Helping a child with stress

Dr. Markham,
How does a parent know when a child just has a bad habit or is behaving badly versus showing signs of stress that parents should worry about? For instance, is nail biting a bad habit or a sign of stress?


Dear Julie,
All kids are stressed on a regular basis -- imagine all the setbacks and frustrations of their day! Kids feel pushed around and asked to tackle stressful new situations all day every day. That's ok -- if they have the internal resources, they can overcome those stressors to grow, learn, develop mastery. That's how kids become resilient.

Unfortunately, often the behavior we take for granted as age-appropriate -- tantrums, power struggles, sleep issues, nail biting, aggressive play -- is actually an indication that kids need help dealing with stress in general or with a particular stressful issue. Are these issues ALWAYS an indication of a problem? Yes. Often the problem can be resolved easily, but they are always indications the child needs help. Kids who are not stressed are cheerful, cooperative and able to handle normal developmental challenges.

Sometimes healthy kids begin to handle stress in unhealthy ways (like nail biting) that are hard to break even once the child is not under stress. That's why preventing stress is always better than "treating" it after the fact.

The best ways to help kids with stress:

1. Give kids the internal resources to master daily stress by making sure they get enough sleep and down time.
2. Make sure the child does not have too many new things going on at once. Don't start a new school at the same time the new baby arrives.
3. Make sure the child has enough connection time with parents. Kids who don't get this just don't have the internal resources to rise to all the age-appropriate developmental challenges they face.
4. Let kids discharge stress by attending to them emotionally. We all know how we can burst into tears when someone offers us understanding, and then feel better after a good cry. Kids won't tell you they are having a hard week, they just act out. When kids exhibit problem behavior, see it as asking for your help. Instead of cracking down with punishments, help them discharge pent-up frustration and stress:

  • Move in close to kindly limit the bad behavior ("No, we don't throw toys")
  • Hold the child while he cries or stay close while he rages
  • Acknowledge how sad and mad he feels, and that it's good to let those feelings go
  • Cuddle for awhile to reconnect and reaffirm your love for him.

As far as habits like nail biting go, usually kids have to be motivated to give them up. You might want to read my answer to a mom who wrote about how to cure her daughter's nail biting. I hope this helps.

AHA! Parenting Magazine
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My son said to me one day "pinky swear you won't yell anymore?" That broke my heart and made me realize that yelling only hurts everyone. Doesn't mean I am perfect, but it was a good reminder!


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