There is a distinct difference between stress and distress. At times, it can be tricky to tell what your child is experiencing. It is important to recognize these differences to ensure that we are helping them cope in the correct manner.
What Is Stress?
Stress is defined as a natural reaction to an unpleasant or overwhelming occurrence. Children may experience stress when a lot is asked of them, during periods of change, or when they notice their parents are feeling stressed. In general, stress is not a prolonged feeling and can be worked through and resolved.
Feeling stressed is not a choice; it is a natural response due to stimuli. Stress can be harmful, impacting a child’s mental health and physical well-being.
Mentally, children may experience the following:
- Frustration could result in certain behaviors like meltdowns
Physical Reactions to Stress
Some physical reactions to childhood stress include but are not limited to:
- Chest pain
Not all stress is bad, though. There is a type of stress referred to as eustress, which can be beneficial and productive. Eustress is a feeling of pressure, but it motivates us to get things done. Some people even call this positive stress.
The Range of Stressful Sensations
Stress, in general, is explained on a spectrum fromeustress to distress. Normal, everyday stress falls right in the middle of this spectrum. It can occur frequently, but each individual occurrence is short-lived.
Eustress: Positive Anticipation
Eustress is a short-term feeling of high pressure leading to a positive outcome. This can occur when exciting things are coming up. The time in between is stressful, but it quickly leads to a rewarding result.
For example, we as adults may feel eustress when planning a wedding, receiving a big promotion at work, or buying a new house or car. Children may experience eustress when preparing for an exciting sporting event, in line for a roller coaster, or on the first day of school.
The middle ground area of typical stress refers to more unpleasant but still short-term events. Studying for a big test, having too much to do with not enough time, or going through a period of change may be stressful and unpleasant, but it will be resolved. This stress is momentary.
Distress: The Basics
On the other end of the spectrum, we have distress. This is a negative feeling of stress that is ongoing with no end in sight. It is a long-term feeling with increased negative reactions.
As adults, we might experience distress when dealing with the loss of a loved one, the end of a relationship, losing a job, dealing with health issues, etc.
Children may experience distress when being bullied at school, dealing with the divorce of their parents, or experiencing housing problems.
It is not uncommon for children to feel the same level and spectrum of stress as their parents, but that is not always the case. We can best help our children by being aware of the different levels of stress and the most efficient coping strategies for each.
What Is Distress?
Let’s dive a bit deeper into distress since it is the most concerning and potentially harmful. There are many reasons children may experience distress, and some may be obvious to us as parents.
However, sometimes children experience things we aren’t directly aware of, and if they are not yet willing to open up and share, we may not know for a while.
If things are going on at school or outside of the immediate family, it can be harder to pinpoint the root cause of distress. In those times, we can look for signs in our children’s behavior.
Signs of distress in children might present as:
- Increased irritability and/or aggression
- Clinginess or increased attachment
- Changes in eating or sleeping habits
- Decreased concentration
- Acting withdrawn
- Excessively nervous or fearful
When children demonstrate any of the above symptoms for a prolonged period, they may be in a situation causing them distress.
Distress can cause anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns. It is much more severe than stress and, although commonly used interchangeably, very different. While stress is experienced by everyone, distress is a much more serious state.
Parenting a Child in Distress
As parents, we never want our babies to feel this way! It is heartbreaking to watch them go through these stages, and we want to do whatever we can to help them. To start, the most important step is recognizing that distress is occurring.
Use Imaginative Play
Once we see it and know what it is, we can take steps to help our children. Having a check-in system is a good way to ask your child how they are feeling without a sense of pressure. This can be as simple or creative as you wish, from colored sticky notes to visual toys.
Some ideas can be fun and play-based to keep it simple, like using toys like a comforting teddy bear or doll to act out some imaginative scenarios.
The key here is to let the play develop naturally. Allow your child to guide the game; they might just reveal that their bear is feeling sad or worried. If you need a casual prompt, you can ask your child’s toy how school was or how they are feeling that day.
Imaginative play can spark conversation, or bonding time, with less pressure. Even if your child doesn’t open up during a play session, imaginative play helps children process complex emotions, reduces the effects of long-term stress, and builds confidence.
Peer-to-peer play is essential, but playing imagination-based games with adults forms the bonds that help children ask for assistance when they need it.
Create an Emotional Calendar
If you are short on time, you can use color-coded sticky notes and a calendar. Your little one can check in by putting a color on the day each morning — a great way to see how they’re feeling while also teaching the self-awareness skills necessary for emotional control.
Read a Book
Choose a story to read that may spark a connection in your child. Hearing that situations like teasing or struggling to make friends are common can help children feel validated and understood.
Talking over the story may help your little one open up to you or someone they trust.
When our children check in to let us know that they may not be feeling their best, we need to ensure they feel heard and understand that their feelings are valid. We want to let them know they are not alone.
Reassurance can often be done more through action than words. Instead of asking questions or explaining anything yet, we can just take a few moments to show that we’re there for them and not going anywhere, no matter how they may be feeling.
Once they are ready to talk, we can share coping strategies to help them through it.
How To Cope With Distress
When our children are at their peak of stress, we want to find the best ways to calm them down in the short term while helping them through a prolonged situation.
Try Some Breathing Exercises
When a child is in distress, they first need a way to calm down.
Breathing exercises, meditation, and mindfulness exercises are all ways to calm their central nervous systems and get them to a less heightened state. These can be very simple and repeated as needed.
Go to a Calm Spot
Taking deep, steady breaths helps children feel safe, controlled, and calm. If our children feel insecure or unsafe, it helps to have a pre-planned “happy place” where they can decompress.
This specific place should be soothing, familiar, quiet, and calm. Designate a specific spot, like a corner in the playroom or behind the living room couch. Add a few tools, like a weighted mat or a sensory bin.
Practice Mindfulness Techniques
Doing a mindfulness exercise includes developing an awareness of one's body. These are done by pinpointing areas of physical stress, tensing up on purpose, then releasing the tension slowly.
This technique — progressive relaxation — allows them to feel the stress leave their body and relates their mental state to their physical state. Usually, you can have them start at the very top of their head and work all the way down to their toes.
Once our children are physically calm in the moment, we can turn our focus to the long term. We want to help them overcome whatever is causing them distress. Oftentimes, the cause itself is out of our control. As much as we wish we could, we can’t always take away the pain.
Ask for Help
You don’t have to tackle it all alone.
Sometimes, the best thing to do is consult your child’s pediatrician. When intense life events occur, and your child’s reactions overwhelm them, it’s always a good step to just let them know and get their advice. There are many types of therapies and support groups available to those in need.
Creating a support group for both ourselves and our children is always beneficial. While we can’t take the situation away, we can create a safe space with safe people so that no one feels like they’re in it alone.
As parents, we need that as much as our babies do: Parenting a child in distress is no easy feat.
When a child is facing stress, review the spectrum of stress and note where they fall on that spectrum. This will help us identify their feelings, find the root cause, and best choose a coping mechanism to handle it.
Distress is much more significant than stress. It is a less-common prolonged state of extreme stress. In turn, it requires different coping strategies than typical stressful situations.
We all want what’s best for our babies. A child facing stress or distress is a struggle we don’t have to face alone. Don’t be afraid to turn to friends, family, or professionals to seek advice and guidance.
Stress and Distress: Definitions | NCBI Bookshelf
The Impact of Stress on Your Mental Health | Canadian Red Cross Blog
Types of Stressors (Eustress vs. Distress) | Mentalhelp.net
How to recognize signs of distress in children | UNICEF Parenting
Eustress: The Positive Type of Stress, Examples, and More | Healthline
Stress in childhood: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia
Play families: Using toys to open up communication with your child | OpenLearn
Breathing Exercises for Kids | Children's Health
How to Practice Progressive Muscle Relaxation | Verywell Mind
How play strengthens your child’s mental health | UNICEF Parenting