Child Development 101: How to Help Infants and Toddlers Cope With Stress

By Marian Williams, clinical psychologist and lead of the Early Childhood Mental Health Program at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles

Eighteen-month-old “Karla” was playing on the slide at the park in her neighborhood, her mother sitting on a nearby bench chatting with her friend. A loud screech was followed by a crash and the sound of car alarms going off. In a flash, Karla was swept into her mother’s arms and both were shaking as they saw people running and heard sirens coming toward the scene of a car crash in the street next to the park.

“Hailey,” age 11 months, had just learned to say “da da” when her father had to leave town for three months to work on a job out of town. Hailey was very attached to her father, who was always the one to tuck her in for bed and make her favorite oatmeal with bananas for breakfast. She keeps looking for him, jumps up whenever she hears someone at the door, and she cries when it is time for bed.

How Stress Impacts Young Children and Babies

Infants and toddlers face stressful events in their everyday lives, just as adults do. Many people think that children younger than 3 years won’t be as impacted by stress because they “won’t remember” or don’t understand what is happening. However, we now know from research on brain development and toxic stress that even tiny babies are impacted by stress. Even if they can’t put words to their distress, they are impacted by feeling their heart racing, the sight of their mother’s tears, or scary sounds of community violence.

The good news is that while you may not always be able to shield your child from stressful events, your relationship with your child is the buffer that protects from their effects.

Help Your Child Overcome Their Stress

As a clinical psychologist and lead of the Early Childhood Mental Health Program at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, my team and I provide therapy to about 400 infants, toddlers and preschoolers and their families each year, many of whom have been impacted by traumatic or stressful events. Here are some strategies you can use to help buffer your young child from the toxic effects of stress:

Staying close to your child, and letting your child stay near you, helps your child feel safe.

  • Do provide your reassuring presence. Staying close to your child, and letting your child stay near you, helps your child feel safe.
  • Do talk in soothing tones about how you are keeping your child safe. Give simple explanations of what is happening; this is reassuring even if your child does not understand your words. Karla’s mom could say, “That was scary when the cars crashed, but we are ok now. The doctors are taking care of the people in the cars.” Hailey’s mom could say, “We miss Daddy. He is thinking about us. He will come home when his job is done. Let’s look at his picture together.”
  • Don’t have adult conversations about stressful events in front of your child. Even if children can’t understand the words, they hear the worry in adults’ voices.
  • Do help your child play about what happened. For example, Karla and her mother might play about cars crashing. Her mother can play a rescue vehicle coming to help the people in the cars, or a doctor helping them feel better. Hailey’s mother can help her play about an airplane flying away with Daddy and then coming back home to her.
  • Do tell your child when you are leaving, and when you are coming back. Make sure they have a familiar person to stay with them when you have to leave. It might be tempting to “sneak out” to avoid upsetting your child, but this makes children more anxious about separations. Instead, even very young children need to hear, “Mommy’s going to work now. You can play with Nana while I’m gone. I’ll be back for dinner.” If a child cries at separating, narrate their feelings and help them transition: “You’re sad because Mommy’s going. I’ll be back soon.” A goodbye ritual can help your child learn to say goodbye; you might have a special goodbye song or hug that you do each time you leave. You can also try giving your child something of yours to hold onto while you are gone.
  • Do remember that if your child acts up with tantrums, hitting, whining, or other behaviors, they might be reacting to stress or trying to tell you something. Help them put their feelings in words, while setting limits. “You’re mad. It’s okay to be angry, but it’s not okay to hit.”
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