Father and daughter discussing the daughter's day at school

Identifying Signs of Stress in Your Preschooler and How to Help

Adults are not the only ones who feel stress. Little ones ages 2 to 5 also are susceptible to emotional strain, but don’t yet have the ability to verbalize or even know what they are feeling. You can help by knowing how to identify signs of stress in your preschooler, what causes it, and how you can comfort him.

Signs of Stress

Young children can show stress in a way that’s different from adults. The following behaviors can be cues that your child is feeling emotional strain:

  • Fear of being alone
  • Excessive or unusual clinging
  • Hitting or scratching themselves when upset
  • Crying more often than usual
  • Regressing to wetting or soiling
  • Regressing to sucking their thumb
  • Change in eating patterns
  • Nightmares or odd sleep interruptions
  • Running into walls and furniture
  • Reluctance to meet new people or excessive shy behavior 

Causes of Stress

Feelings of stress in children are often rooted in changes or new environments. Below are some situations that often induce stress for preschoolers:

  • New baby brother or sister
  • Moving
  • Parents fighting
  • New teacher or babysitter
  • Separation from people who care for them
  • Changes in their normal routine
  • Losing a favorite security item (such as a blanket, stuffed animal or pacifier)
  • Exposure to sudden, unfamiliar or loud noises

Helping Your Child Deal with Stress

If you notice signs of stress in your little one, don’t let it stress you out, too! There are several ways to help comfort your child and alleviate the anxiety she’s feeling:

1.  Routine is key. As much as possible, try to observe a rhythmic routine each day. Your child gains comfort and security from anticipating the sequence and familiar rhythms of her day.

2.  Snuggle up. Try to make time for cuddling before the day begins, at night before bedtime and during the day. Physical affection and closeness can help your child feel connected and reassured. Regular loving touch is especially important for young children.

3.  Speak softly. If you notice your child is showing signs of stress, try speaking to him in a very soft, calm tone. This can help to soothe his nervous system. Communicate that you notice he seems scared or nervous and reassure him you are there to help.

4.  Talk about feelings. Take every opportunity to talk about various emotions and point out how everyone has feelings. Read books about feelings with your child, such as “I Was So Mad” by Mercer Mayer and “The Way I Feel” by Janan Cain. Make it a regular routine to reflect on emotions and set an example by expressing your own feelings. For instance, say aloud to your child, “I am feeling nervous about going to my new job today. I am going to just take some deep breaths and remember that even though I feel nervous I will feel better once I get used to the new place.” This will help your little one recognize her own feelings and feel comfortable sharing them with you.

5.  Play Therapy. If your child’s stress symptoms persist and are interfering with his ability to sleep, eat, socialize or learn, consider seeking out a therapist trained in play therapy. Play therapists are able to help children work through what is bothering them and reduce their stress.

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