Young children’s reactions to stress

Infants and young children cannot always tell us that they are upset or explain what is worrying them. So it helps to know about the way they send messages, or their cues. These can be different for different children but there are some common ones to look out for. Changes in behaviour are often the first signal indicating that there is something worrying a child.

… whenever [a] child persists stubbornly in obviously unreasonable behaviour, we should look for the persistent stimuli which he can neither ignore nor yet adjust himself to (Edhouse, 1975, p. 16).

The most recognisable cue for a baby or young child’s distress is crying. This is the way they can tell us they need help. An infant’s cries are often so panicky that they make us want to reach out to them quickly, which is what their exact purpose is! Cries can have different meanings and, as we get to know the infants in our care, we gradually learn what they need and how best to respond to their needs. Some children, if their cries are neglected long enough, will give up and seem as if they have ‘gotten over’ the problem, when the opposite is true. If we are not aware of this, we might not give an infant or young child support at a time when they need it most. We need to beware of our own tendency to interpret crying in ways that are meaningful to us and not necessarily to the infant. For example, it is sometimes said that babies need to cry to exercise their lungs, so the adult may not see a need to respond.

At bedtime, some infants have a tired grizzle that quickly settles as they drop into sleep. Or the cry may show that the infant is not settling and needs a response. It may be a hopeless cry when the infant has learnt over time that crying does not get a response, or the response does not bring comfort. As we try to work out how to respond, we need to take into account what we know about infants and, in particular, the baby in our care. Other ways that young infants may show stress include looking away, becoming agitated, grimacing and sometimes going to sleep. Severely stressed infants may fail to thrive.

‘We need to beware of our own tendency to interpret crying in ways that are meaningful to us and not necessarily to the infant.’

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This article was taken from ECA’s Research in Practice Series, ‘Helping children with difficult things’. To purchase your copy of Helping children with difficult thingsclick here.

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Pam Linke

Pam Linke is a social worker who has done further study in Early Childhood Education. She has spent many years working with parents, maternal child health nurses and early childhood educators, particularly in relationship to children’s social and emotional development. She has a special interest in the development of resilience. Currently, she works as a consultant in early childhood and parenting. Prior to this, she was Strategic Manager, Parenting, for the South Australian Children, Youth and Women’s Health Service. She had a major role in initiating and developing the state-wide Family Home Visiting program for parents of infants up to two years of age. Pam also set up and managed the crisis intervention family therapy program, and managed children’s residential care services for CentreCare. Pam is a past president of the Australian Association for Infant Mental Health and has served on a number of other Boards, including Early Childhood Australia. She has written many books for parents and early childhood professionals, including, recently, First Year at School (co-author) and Your Child from Birth to Eight. She was the initial content author of the Child and Youth Health (SA Government website for parents), which won a national award. She has been awarded nationally and internationally for her contribution to children’s health and wellbeing, and advocacy for children.

2 thoughts on “Young children’s reactions to stress”

    marie Liseby Lapierre says:

    THANK you Pam Linke, for your expertise & experience in EC Education. Very helpful for me to read and learn, and apply. Liseby

    Crying for a long time is bad for the babies health. All parents should immediately seek medical help if there is something unusual crying pattern. There are many reason why babies are crying, many parents knows if it’s serious or not.

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